In his Column last week
, Chris Caines bemoaned the lack of funky things to do with new technology (a good read, if you haven't checked it out already). Sure, we have new graphics cards, faster processors et al - but for what? Even the latest games are whipped into line by the newest series of GPUs from ATI and Nvidia, and CPUs are generally perceived as being pretty dull, if essential.
Whilst I could see Chris' point, I was keen to see if there really were bigger and better applications that today's technology enabled. In the end, the application came looking for me, when I was invited down to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, courtesy of AMD
As I'm sure you guys know, AMD are the official Technology partner of Scuderia Ferrari
Formula 1 racing team. Aside from the obvious kudos of being associated with the top-performing team, AMD get a number of fringe benefits - like tickets to races, hospitality etc. In return, Ferrari get nice things like shedloads of laptops, AMD64 systems, expertise - and, of course, money.
"AMD's technology means it can be done faster and more thoroughly than it ever could have been done previously"
What does all this really mean? Well, it means an application of technology that is damn cool. Whilst you or I are happily fragging away in Far Cry on our AMD64 processors, the technology bods at Ferrari are doing some pretty cool things, and things that weren't possible before AMD64 technology arrived.
I had the opportunity to speak to one of Ferrari's technicians about what they were doing with AMD's processors. One of the absolutely crucial things is Telemetry. For the Formula 1 boffs amongst you, the phrase is self-evident, but for those who don't follow the racing, a quick explanation. Every Formula 1 car has an onboard computer which records everything about the car and transmits it back to the pit garage to be analysed, so that technicians can see how the car is performing, what needs to be changed etc. Obviously, during a race, all this analysis needs to be done on the fly - and AMD's technology means it can be done faster and more thoroughly than it ever could have been done previously. This makes a tangible difference to the operation of Ferarri's race strategy and is an application of new technology that makes a big difference in the real world, rather than a few Frames Per Second in Quake.
We bash on about things like heat characteristics of processors when we review them, but you guys often find that it makes little difference - whilst the Intel Prescott may run absurdly hot, it makes slim difference to most hardware enthusiasts' top end cooling systems. Where it can become key is in other applications, and AMD and Ferrari again epitomise this. Room in the pits is often at a premium, and Ferrari need the highest power in the smallest amount of space. AMD were able to provide laptops outfitted with AMD64 chips to give the computing power Ferrari needed in a decent space. AMD can only fit their high-end chips in notebooks because of the heat characteristics - putting a Prescott or Extreme Edition Pentium 4 in a notebook, whilst possible, is extremely inefficient in terms of both heat and power requirements. You can see that Chris has a point - that heat characteristics in new-generation chips aren't that exciting, and don't really enable much on the desktop - but that if we look at applications outside the world of enthusiast computing, this stuff really makes a difference.
Moving into the future, the increasing power of desktop CPUs means that complex things, that previously had to be computed offline by IBM workstations - like race simulations - can be moved into real-time processing on standard computers. We're already seeing this in the graphics industry, as GPU's approach the speed and quality that can be output by traditional workstations doing visual effects work, and the same is becoming true of processors. Getting the latest technology first means a real competetive advantage, in whatever industry you might be in - be it visual effects, Formula 1, or whatever, and so the ongoing march of technology, whilst occasionally boring, is always needed.
"Getting the latest technology first means a real competetive advantage"
As Antonio Calabrese of Ferrari says, “The role of computers in Formula One racing continues to expand, from more realistic simulation systems for drivers to more accurate race management tools... A technology partner like AMD will help us continue to outpace our competition.”
Cheesy, but accurate.