Next Phase Of Energy Efficiency Begins

Big companies and more connectivity are making low power even more of a focus.

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Individual purchases and product rollouts by companies are difficult to assess by themselves. Sometimes they are isolated steps that have no context or connection to anything else—the proverbial toe-dipping exercise to see just how deep and cold the water is. Other times, they are the beginning of a huge market shift.

In the mobile space—and increasingly in everything that mobile devices interface with—the focus is on energy efficiency and throughput rather than processor performance is more than just a testing of the water. While performance has to keep up with new functions and features and faster communication protocols, just having a phone or tablet that can process something faster is almost transparent to users. Being able to load Web pages or process streaming video at the same speed for more hours between charges is very apparent, however, and it will become even more apparent as the Internet of Things begins turning devices and sensors on and off more frequently.

The good news about a connected home or office or automobile is that it’s always connected. That’s the bad news, too, because every component on that network is now part of an even larger system, and that larger system has a fixed power budget. This helps explain why Apple just bought six-year-old startup Passif Semiconductor, which according to a slew of reports makes low-power communications chips. The company is something of a mystery because it never emerged from stealth mode. The direction Apple is taking is less mysterious. It has been on a mission to prolong battery life and lower power consumption in every device, from smart phones and tablets to notebook computers and even the forthcoming desktop tower.

Along the same lines, Cadence rolled out an ultra-low-power sensor IP subsystem this week. And virtually all of the major IP vendors are working to cut energy use, either through more intelligent use of heterogeneous processing resources—witness ARM’s big.LITTLE approach, better throughput and faster I/O (Synopsys and Cadence), and with software customized specifically for the hardware (Mentor Graphics). Even Intel has taken a page out of this low power book, pushing its newest mobile Atom processor to new performance and throughput with much lower leakage and power consumption.

It will take an entire ecosystem to address these issues, of course. Energy efficiency is a system-wide issue, and it will require standards, diligence, and a market education and awareness that these kinds of improvements ultimately will save consumers money, time and improve the longevity of their devices. But what’s becoming apparent is that big companies are now beginning to take this entire shift very seriously. Bottom Line: The toe dipping stage is over.

—Ed Sperling