The Power Of The Customer Experience

It’s not just about the chip, it’s what’s running on it—and how much energy it uses.


By Barry Pangrle
Consumers of electronics don’t buy chips, they buy products or gadgets. Sure the geeks among us may know about “the chip” in a PC, typically in reference to the CPU or maybe even the GPU. But there are many chips in the product and you’d have to be an über-geek to know all of them.

How many customers actually know the primary SoC in their smart phone? The point is that the customer’s experience with the end product goes way beyond the hardware. The best hardware is useless unless there are applications available to make use of that hardware and preferably applications that customers want to run. Hardware designers today are adding in all types of functionality to improve energy efficiency, such as power-gating and dynamic voltage and frequency scaling, but much of this is of little value unless the software actually takes advantage of these capabilities.

Recently, one of the major graphics chip manufacturers introduced a feature that allows seamless switching between the integrated graphics processor (IGP) and a higher performance discrete graphics processor unit (GPU). The trick in making this work is some fancy drivers, i.e. software, that can on-the-fly determine when more processing power is needed and gracefully switch to the higher powered GPU and then switch back to the lower power IGP when the extra performance is no longer needed. This gives the customer the best of both worlds, high performance when needed and better overall battery lifetime by switching to the lower power alternative when appropriate.

One of the leading smart phone vendors, which just recently announced a next-generation product, is riding a wave of popularity largely driven by the experience that their customers get when using their products. I recently saw comedian Don McMillan’s show and he got a good laugh from the audience when he asked if anyone had had a user of this product try to “convert” them (much in the same way as being asked to convert to a new religion). Like any good joke, it was funny because there’s at least some truth in what Don was saying. I believe that in part this company’s success is due to its ability to control the hardware platform and software system running on it. Compare this to software that has to run on endless combinations of hardware platforms. Compromises have to be made in order to get that broader flexibility. There’s an inherent advantage for software that targets fewer and better-known and controlled hardware configurations.

The total customer experience for many electronic products hinges on how well the software works with the hardware. The notebook computer that I’m using to write this article occasionally will jump into a mode where the fan cranks up and I know that my battery is being drained. Oftentimes it’s an application that I don’t need to have running that has taken over the CPU. In general, I’m not too fond of the noise or the fact that the energy is being sucked out of my battery. Given that changes as small as the compiler optimization settings used to compile an application can impact its cache access patterns and thus its power profile, most systems still have a lot to gain by further optimizing the software for the given hardware platform.

The current trend in system design is towards more emphasis being placed on the software. Expect that trend to continue.

—Barry Pangrle is a solutions architect for low power design and verification at Mentor Graphics