The Denial Phase Is Over

Power considerations are no longer something to pass over with a nod. They’re part of every design.

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For the last seven years—roughly since Apple first introduced the iPhone—the focus on power has become very real. In the past few years, that focus has shifted from power—how energy is used over time—to energy efficiency.

This is more than just hair-splitting. It represents a fundamental and strategic shift for how SoCs and processors are architected, implemented and manufactured. Moore’s Law has certainly given this a boost—leakage current is like leaving the spigot open on a battery, and great pains have been taken through finFETs and new materials to reduce that leakage. But consumers were the real driving force in this, and battery life has become a real competitive advantage and an advertised spec for the sale of all mobile electronics.

This is, to say the least, long overdue. For years, chipmakers had been building advanced energy-saving features into their chips, only to find that device makers didn’t have the software to utilize those features or simply didn’t care. Rather than worrying about energy-saving features, they were more concerned with cost, area and performance. Power was the wiggle room in a spec. That’s changed, and it marks a deep-seated shift that will drive energy efficient designs for years to come. Consumers simply won’t stand for it anymore. Battery life is critical, and too many people are still complaining about having to charge their smart phones more than once a day.

This is just the start, too. In the wearable market, leakage and power density is particularly bad for anything but hand warmers. Imagine putting a device as warm as your laptop next to your head on a hot day. Even if the battery lasted long enough, it would be very uncomfortable. Inside your body, the discomfort level could be even worse.

The Internet of Things, which has been at the center of attention lately, won’t work if people have to pay extra for their utility bills. If you’re considering a connected home and your energy bill goes up, or you’re in a driverless car and your gas mileage takes a significant hit, you’re probably going to think twice about investing in new technology right away.

This message isn’t lost on system builders—the ones who build the devices that use SoCs, processors, ASICs, and any variation you can think of. Power budgets are shrinking even if other budgets are not, and there are more functions competing for that power budget the tighter the specs for energy usage by all components of those systems.

This is good news for the semiconductor industry, of course, because it means a whole new set of designs will be needed. It’s also good news for engineers, who will be called upon to design and build these incredibly efficient devices for years to come. But most of all, it’s good business, because without this kind of attention on energy no one is going to buy this stuff. And in the end, no matter how much effort goes into designs, that’s really what matters most.