Power Markets

Which is more important, performance or power? Wrong question.


There has been an ongoing discussion in the industry about the importance of power and performance and which is more important. I submit that the real question is: How much performance can be squeezed out of the power budget for any given market segment?

Figure 1. Processor Market Segment Power Budgets

Figure 1 shows a rough breakdown of the different market segments for processors, along with some marketing names to describe them. The boundaries blur a bit as the performance within any given segment drops. For instance, a mediocre performer in the 75W Desktop “Mainstream” may look more like a “Value” offering because of the necessary drop in its pricing if its performance isn’t up to the best in that class. Clearly the price a manufacturer can charge in any given segment is going to be correlated to how competitive the part’s performance is compared to other offerings in that segment.

For high-end servers that can have a TDP of up to 150W, performance is king. At that level, the parts are pushing the economics of the cooling solutions to handle their heat dissipation. Performance per Watt counts, though, and the design team that figures out how to get the most performance per watt wins, because there is a cap on the TDP. Total cost of ownership (TCO) is also an important factor in the decision process of any customers shopping in this segment of the market and again emphasizes the importance of performance per watt. Underlying process technology efficiency can also play an important role here.

The desktop market is probably a little less directly sensitive to power, as I believe it’s doubtful that most customers in this category actually know how much the energy consumption of their desktop computers actually cost them. This is also a shrinking segment in terms of computing market share, as more customers are leaning more heavily on mobile computing devices. But desktops still offer performance not obtainable in mobile platforms (especially for gaming). One notable factor here though is the amount of noise that the system produces. Lower power parts typically mean fewer and slower spinning fans, which is a nice feature that consumers still pay attention to. No one wants to have to sit all day next to a fan that sounds like a Boeing 747 on takeoff.

In the mobile segment, customers are probably most in tune with the energy consumption level of their device. Practically all of these provide instantaneous feedback in the form of a battery gauge, which lets the user know how much energy a device is using and how soon they’ll have to stop using it unless they can feed it more energy. Again, performance per watt will determine how enjoyable the user experience is for the available amount of battery time. Higher quality and quantity of time win in this segment.

The market segments will continue to blur as performance per watt continues to improve through better design practices and process technology advancements. There appears to be a tidal wave of ultra-low-power server offerings on the horizon, and it will be interesting to see how they will impact the computing ecosystem.

So which is more important, power or performance? For any given segment, it is how much performance can be squeezed out of that segment’s power budget and it directly impacts how much that product’s manufacturer can charge for their parts. When it comes to the success of a product, today the two are inseparable.