IT FEELS LIKE an old and tired mantra at this point, but it’s fair to say that 2020 was an awful and very challenging year. It’s shown us just how dependent we are on that humble transistor. Life has changed, for better or worse, and the world we once knew likely won’t exist in the same way it did when this pandemic ends. If the science comes true, and as population sizes swell, diseases like this will likely become far more commonplace. And with it there’ll no doubt be an even greater shift in how we work, how we enjoy our spare time, and how we connect with our loved ones.
We’re seeing this change happen already: More of us now than ever work from home, and the majority are keen to see that trend continue even after this period in history ends, at least on a flexible basis. In fact, although economies have faltered and gone into sharp recessions across the globe, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one area that hasn’t been negatively impacted by this colossal moment in time is the tech industry. If anything it’s boomed, as more of us have demanded faster processors, better connectivity, and new PCs, and because of that supply can’t keep up with demand.
The technologies that launched this year have been nothing if not impressive. We’ve seen new GPUs from AMD and Nvidia that have begun to really challenge the feasibility of 4K gaming; processor leaps that have disrupted long-time industry kings; more impressive monitor tech at far better prices; and an arsenal of new ergonomically designed peripherals—and even more have made their way into the design stages already.
At any other time in history, these launches would’ve been considered legendary. We’ve been absolutely spoiled with some incredible hardware over the last few months. Yet as the madness that is 2020 has now come to a close, this is truly only the beginning. As always, new trends, demands, and repercussions in innovation and design take time to make it to market, and the effects of COVID-19 on the industry and on the PC enthusiast community as a whole will only begin to be really felt later this year.
So what is coming? What can we expect? And what tech are we likely to see pop into existence? Well we’ve got the whole gang back together to give you the very best lowdown on the future tech of 2021.
THE CPUS OF TOMORROW
INTEL VS AMD, THE BATTLE CONTINUES
2020 ended with a bang on the CPU front, with AMD’s Zen 3 architecture claiming the overall CPU crown. Looking forward to 2021, Intel hopes to reclaim some of its lost glory, but AMD isn’t resting on its laurels either.
After a busy 2020, AMD doesn’t have plans for a completely new architecture this year. Zen 4 is in the works, but it’s slated for 2022—it will be made using TSMC’s N5 5nm lithography, likely with DDR5 and PCIe Gen5 support, and a new socket. Considering that Zen 3 just launched for desktops at the end of 2020, most of AMD’s 2021 plans will involve rolling out Zen 3 across the rest of the portfolio. That means everything from mobile chips to servers, with additional Ryzen desktop SKUs as needed.
On the server front, AMD’s Milan chips are expected to fill the same niche as the existing Zen 2 Rome chips, and will drop into existing motherboards. They’ll top out at 64-core/128thread versions, but instead of Zen 2 compute chiplets, they’ll be upgraded to Zen 3 chiplets that have a unified 32MB L3 cache and a single core complex, plus all the other architectural enhancements. Naturally, we’ll see the same designs show up in Threadripper 5000 variants for HEDT builds. A 32-core/64-thread Threadripper 5970X seems a given, and a 64-core 5990X may or may not see the light of day.
At the other end of the spectrum, laptops are due to get not just one but two potential upgrades this year. Cezanne is slated to use an eight-core Zen 3 CPU paired with a Vega 7 GPU, all in a monolithic die. Frankly, we’re a bit tired of seeing the Vega GPUs as the only current option in AMD integrated graphics. Which is why AMD also has Van Gogh in the works—except that will apparently pair Zen 2 CPU cores with a Navi 2x GPU, according to the latest roadmap leaks. It seems likely that Van Gogh will go after the 7.5-18W range, meaning it’s targeting Intel’s Tiger Lake, and will probably have a four-core/eight-thread CPU. As for the Navi 2x graphics, it’s difficult to imagine AMD cramming ray tracing into integrated graphics, so it may be more of a Navi 1x design in a lot of respects.
Flipping over to Intel, the company is looking to strike back at AMD’s Ryzen 5000 chips with Rocket Lake, which will have backported Cypress Cove CPU cores—basically, those are Ice Lake’s Sunny Cove cores, but on 14nm+++ instead of 10nm. It’s a bit of a mess, but Intel claims it will deliver more than a 10 percent IPC (Instructions Per Cycle) increase relative to the current Comet Lake, and could still clock as high as 5GHz. Rocket Lake will also support PCIe Gen4 and feature Intel Xe integrated graphics. The big problem is that it will top out at eight CPU cores, which is a step back from the current 10-core i9-10900K. In short, it won’t be able to touch AMD’s 5900X/5950X multi-threaded performance.
Intel has a second completely new CPU architecture slated for 2021 as well—Alder Lake. This is where things really get interesting. Alder Lake will be a hybrid CPU design, sporting up to eight Golden Cove high-performance CPU cores, and eight Gracemont low-power cores. Unlike Rocket Lake, Alder Lake will be manufactured using Intel’s SuperFIN 10nm node, making it the first 10nm desktop CPU from the company. It will also move to a new LGA1700 socket, with DDR5 memory support, and will continue to leverage Xe Graphics on the GPU front. It sounds impressive, but the hybrid design could make things messy on Windows, which isn’t that great at figuring out how to balance loads across cores of potentially wildly different performance.
Finally, Intel also has Tiger Lake-H CPUs slated to launch for laptops in 2021. These will pack up to eight Willow Cove CPU cores and should offer a substantial boost to performance. It’s interesting that Intel hasn’t mentioned any plans to release Tiger Lake on the desktop—normally high-end laptops use the same chips found in desktops, just limited to lower power levels. Maybe Intel thinks that Alder Lake already covers this sector, but then why not just do Alder Lake for laptops as well? Either way, 2021 is shaping up to be very interesting in the CPU sector.
BREAKING GRAPHICAL LIMITS
INTERNATIONAL CHANGES AND MORE MID-RANGE COMPETITION?
Last year was pretty slow-going on the GPU front, right up until September, when Nvidia blew open the doors with its new Ampere architecture and RTX 30-series graphics cards. AMD followed suit with the RX 6800 series in November and December. Considering 2020 ended with an explosion of GPU launches, we don’t anticipate anything radically new for 2021. Which isn’t to say there won’t be a ton of new GPUs coming out; they’ll just be more iterative and will go after the mainstream and budget markets, rather than going out and delivering new levels of performance. Probably, anyway.
AMD’s Radeon RX 6800 series debuts in this issue (see page 74), bringing with it the new RDNA2 architecture and a whopping 128MB Infinity Cache. Performance in traditional games is right up with Nvidia’s best, but turn on ray tracing and things aren’t looking as promising. So where does AMD go from here?
For 2021, we expect RDNA2 to trickle down to lower tier products, with the RX 6800 XT and the RX 6900 XT (coming next issue) staying at the top of the product stack. We expect to see RX 6700 XT and RX 6500 XT models at the very least, probably RX 6700 and RX 6500 as well. But scaling RDNA2 down from Navi 21 presents some interesting challenges.
AMD talked a lot about its Infinity Cache for the biggest chip, but there’s pretty much no way that AMD can put a 128MB cache in the mainstream and budget variants. We’ve already seen that the 128MB cache doesn’t benefit 4K gaming as much as 1440p and 1080p, but will a 64MB or 32MB Infinity Cache still be sufficient? We’ll likely find out later this year.
Navi 22 is the rumored mainstream offering, with 40 CUs and a 64MB Infinity Cache. It might end up with 12GB of memory, or potentially 8GB. It will be a mainstream part, going after the $300-$450 market segment (give or take). Below that is Navi 23, the pseudo-budget part that will probably start at around $200, with a 32MB Infinity Cache. There may even be a Navi 24 chip, but it’s difficult to imagine RDNA2’s full feature set (including ray tracing) scaled-down that far. Then again, Xbox Series S exists, so we might get a PC equivalent.
On the Nvidia front, right now the lowest tier Ampere part is the RTX 3070, but it will be joined by the RTX 3060 Ti. It’s the same GA104 chip, with the same 8GB of GDDR6 14Gbps memory; it just trims the chip down to 4,864 CUDA cores and 38 SMs (compared to 46 SMs on the 3070). That should mean about 15 percent less performance, with a price of $399. Compared to the outgoing RTX 2060 Super, it should be a healthy step up in performance—Nvidia claims it will be five to 10 percent faster than the RTX 2080 Super, and around 40 percent faster than the 2060 Super.
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