Friday 28 March 2008

Making chipsets interesting

At the risk of offending all those who love to talk for hours about cores, caches and clock speeds, I have to say that I personally find discussions about the innards of silicon chips and how they are wired together intensely boring. In fact, I’ve probably already used all the wrong words and phrases, even in that first sentence, which is no doubt going to annoy some people further.

So, when Tony, Martin and I were invited to a dinner to meet with some of AMD’s European executives, I was understandably in two minds about attending, especially as I am also not really into all this wining and dining stuff as some other analyst are.

I went along, though, and I’m glad I did. Sure, I found myself sucked into the odd eye glazing conversation that I only partially understood, but something that came across clearly was that AMD is investing quite a bit in ‘reaching through’ relationships with its direct customers (largely the OEMs) to the ultimate customers – Enterprises, SMBs and consumers.

Of course there is nothing new or unique in this, in fact I ran a team at Nortel Networks back in the early 00’s which did exactly the same thing (in that case, reaching through the mobile operators to understand how 3G related to their subscribers). The basic idea is that you can gain insights and tune your R&D based on direct end user/buyer input that would not be possible if you worked second hand through your customer as an intermediary. To do this well, however, you really need people who understand that end user environment and the trends that are taking place within it, and that’s not necessarily the same people that deal with your core product design from an internal perspective.

Anyway, this end-user oriented view of the world shifted discussions to more familiar territory for me during the dinner, and I enjoyed hearing people like Giuseppe Amato, who goes under the title “Director, Value Proposition Team”, explaining how the whole process works in relation to data centre evolution, high performance computing and mobile working. It changed my perception of AMD quite a bit from simply “the alternative to Intel” to that of an independent player that is committed to driving industry development in its own way.

While I am not qualified to comment on the relative merits of AMD technology versus the competition, nor its ability to execute in the cut throat world of OEM deals and supply chains, I now have a much better appreciation of why what AMD does actually matters. It is not just about price/performance or performance per watt of energy consumed, it is about shifting thresholds to make things economically or practically possible in the mainstream market that previously were not. That’s why the “what if you could....?” conversations with end customers as suppliers like AMD reach through to them are so important. And also why, for the first time in my life, I actually had some genuinely interesting conversations about silicon that were directly relevant to the world in which I live.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Downgrading from Vista to XP

I blogged a while back on how a Vista upgrade effectively rendered my old desktop machine useless for business purposes (see Retiring Leonardo from last year). I got a lot of feedback at that time as many people out there were obviously trying to get a handle on the viability of upgrading older kit.

While this debate continues, the related question has now arisen of whether even some PCs pre-installed with Vista are capable of running it adequately. Based on my own experience, this is a very pertinent question to ask if you are considering buying anything with less than a 1.8 Ghz Core2 Duo processor with 2Gb of memory - the current minimum spec I work on for serious business use. Yet there are lots of Vista machines out there on the market that are significantly less powerful than this.

Without getting into the rights or wrongs of this state of affairs, if you are unlucky enough to be struggling with Vista on a lower spec machine, you may be interested in a recent experience I had which was a bit of a wakeup call – not just in terms of the physical performance side of things, but also on the broader question of the value of Vista from an end user perspective in a business environment.

A few months ago, I needed to replace my notebook. As a notebook to me is companion to my desktop rather than my main machine, I wasn’t looking for anything very powerful – size, weight and battery life were much more important considerations. So, after a happy couple of hours cruising up and down all of the hi-tech shops in London’s Tottenham Court Road trying all the latest kit, I opted for a Sony TZ Series – about 1.2 kilos in weight, fantastic screen, reduced size but really nice keyboard, embedded cellular modem, and lots of other good stuff.

The machine came with Windows Vista Business Edition pre-installed and when I was playing with it in the shop, it was pretty responsive – the 1.2Gz Core2 Duo processor seemed to be up to the job. When I got the machine back to the ranch and loaded everything onto it, though, I have to admit to being a little disappointed with speed. Nevertheless, it was good enough, so I just got on with using it.

Over the course of the next four months, however, the performance gradually degraded and the user experience became awful. It eventually got to the stage where it was talking 12 minutes to boot and about 6-7 minutes to shut down, with very sluggish performance in between and frequent hangs requiring a forced shutdown (which in itself was probably making matters worse).

When researching the problem on the Web, it was clear that I was not the only one to be experiencing issues with Vista on the TZ Series, and the more I read, the more the answer to my problems became obvious – ‘downgrade’ the machine to Windows XP. A few forum entries mentioned a kit on the Sony website designed to allow you to do this, with all of the relevant drivers and utilities, and a set of instructions to guide you through the process. I duly downloaded this, followed the instructions, and it just worked. The longest part was installing and patching XP itself (which you have to buy separately, by the way – your Vista licence doesn’t cover it ** See clarification below) .

The end result is fantastic. The word ‘downgrade’ seems totally inappropriate – in fact, it feels like the machine has gone through a significant upgrade. It now boots in well under 2 minutes (with all the same applications loaded as before), is highly resilient (has gone through a lot of sleep/wake cycles without crashing once) and, interestingly, many of the Sony utilities work much more naturally (I suspect they were designed for XP in the first place then ported to Vista).

The one thing I was a bit worried about was going back to XP from a usability and functionality perspective having got so used to Vista, but I was surprised to find that the experience was actually quite a positive one. Everything seemed more crisp, immediate and uncluttered and so far, the only thing I have missed is the enhanced application switching mechanism in Vista, i.e. the Alt-Tab and Windows-Tab functionality. That’s a minor sacrifice for the other benefits, though, and it only took me an hour or two to get used to the old mechanism again.

The switch back to XP was such a breath of fresh air that I have also ‘downgraded’ the desktop machine I am using at the moment. On a reasonable spec PC you don’t see the same increase in actual performance, but the XP interface still feels a lot cleaner and snappier (at least to me). Having both machines running the same OS obviously has its advantages too.

Now before everyone goes rushing out to downgrade their Vista machines based on this little story, it would be irresponsible of me not to point out that during my research, I read accounts from many happy Vista users, lots of which seemed to be getting on fine with the TZ and similarly spec’d machines. I would suspect the number and range of applications you work with has a bearing on this - remember I said that the TZ felt fine when I was just playing with OS with no applications installed before buying it. It could also, of course, be that people just accept the out-of-the-box experience as normal and don’t really question whether they are getting the best performance from their hardware. All I can say is that the downgrade was definitely the right thing for me, and is something to consider if you find yourself in a similar situation.

In the meantime, we continue to experiment with various desktop options here at Freeform Dynamics, and those looking at alternatives may be interested a post from my colleague Jon Collins entitled Why I’ve replaced Vista with Linux.

Finally, as I type this, I have a brand new MacBook sitting next to me here on my desk, and over the coming few weeks I am going to be looking at the practicalities of using the Mac in a Windows dominated mainstream business environment, so watch this space for experiences with that.

** Clarification re licensing terms: The right to downgrade Vista depends which edition you have. Vista Ultimate and Business may be downgraded within the terms of the Microsoft EULA at no additional cost, but this right does not apply to other editions of the software.