The Chips of CES 2021: How New Silicon Will Boost PCs in the New Year

Of the scores of industries that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended, the PC industry is one of the few that looks to emerge significantly better off than it was in the “before times.” Shipments of PCs are already up significantly, transformed seemingly overnight from a stagnant technology being pushed aside by smartphones to an essential tool for an era of learning and working from home. And that era looks to be long-lasting, if not permanent. 

If the second personal computing revolution is going to stick, though, it needs worthy hardware. Key component manufacturers—notably, AMD, Intel, and Nvidia—have sensed this. At CES 2021 this week, they introduced dozens of new graphics processors, mobile and desktop CPUs, and other chips to boost the capabilities of PCs introduced this year. Shopping for a new laptop or desktop (or searching for parts to build one) has always been time-consuming and thick with jargon. But now that more people are doing it, it’s worth taking a closer look at what all of the CES 2021 chip announcements mean for PC shoppers this year. 

Laptops and Intel: A Cornucopia of New Silicon

If you’re in the market for any kind of laptop, whether it’s a simple Chromebook for classwork or a beefy gaming rig, you’ll want to wrap your head around new processor families that AMD and Intel unveiled at CES 2021. Let’s start with Intel, which introduced a handful of new mobile CPUs built on the company’s long-delayed 10-nanometer (10nm) production process. It promises performance and efficiency gains to significantly speed up tasks and increase battery life. Other new chips employ older processes but bring power to high-end notebooks.

Intel laptopsAMD unveiled at CES, which feature some gaudy core and thread counts, as well as what looks like improved power efficiency. Most of these use AMD’s Zen 3 architecture, the same underpinnings that brought the company’s Ryzen desktop processors to the front of the line with the most recent generation late in 2020.

AMD's Dr. Lisa Su explaining chip technologyChromebook Spin 514) and Asus (Chromebook Flip CM5). They join HP, which was the first adopter of Ryzen C in a Chromebook. So that trend is gaining momentum, and the Ryzen C chips should differentiate the generally bargain-basement AMD-based Chromebooks of years past (based on older A-series silicon) from these peppier offerings.

Gaming Laptops of All Kinds: Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 Series Is Here

Most laptop shoppers needn’t look at graphics processing capabilities too closely. Most of the GPUs integrated into the new Intel and AMD chips (typically called Intel Iris Xe or AMD Radeon Graphics) will suffice for a wide range of mainstream computing tasks.

Two laptops against white backgroundunveiled at CES 2021 this week. These dedicated GPUs are the GeForce RTX 3060, RTX 3070, and RTX 3080.

All three have direct parallels in desktop GPUs. (Nvidia announced the desktop GeForce RTX 3060 at the show, too.) These are the core specs of the three new GPUs for laptops…

Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 SeriesIntel’s new 11th Generation “Rocket Lake” CPUs, which are built on the company’s first new desktop-chip architecture in five years (though still based on existing 14nm process technology for manufacture). The top-end Rocket Lakes will be semi-niche processors, aimed at enthusiasts building tricked-out gaming desktops with the ability to churn out silky-smooth frame rates even on the most demanding of titles. 

Intel Core i9 Tiger Lake HCore i9-10900K can offer, Intel says. 

Asrock Z590 Taichi motherboardworth the upgrade. (Hit the link for our thoughts.)

Desktop PCs and AMD: Serious Content Creators Can Eye Threadripper Pro

While a lot of PC builders are looking to build gaming rigs, some want a powerful system to use for media editing, software development, or other resource-intensive tasks. If that’s you, you’ll be pleased to learn that AMD announced at CES 2021 its plans to sell Ryzen Threadripper Pro processors directly to consumers

AMD Threadripper Pro CPUwe tested one of the chips in a ThinkStation model), some Threadripper Pro chips will be available at retailers starting in March. These include the Threadripper Pro 3995WX, which has a whopping 64 cores and a TDP of 280 watts. Such chips are overkill for pretty much any workaday computing task, but they are catnip for pro content creators who need unimpeachable accuracy in their calculations, such as in the architectural-design or scientific/data analysis fields. They’re suited mainly to people who know they need the vast numbers of cores and threads for complex tasks.

Of course, power users after maximum cores and threads, but who don’t need the error-correcting memory and other features of the Pro line, can continue to look at “ordinary” third-generation Threadripper CPUs, which remain a current and imposing high-core-count option.

The Silicon of 2021: All the PCs 2021 Will Bring

With so many new chips unveiled at CES 2021, it stands to reason that the next few months will be an exciting time for PC innovation at a time when consumers need it the most. But the latest silicon advances won’t solve other problems that the COVID-19 pandemic created, chief among them manufacturing and supply challenges that have left many of last year’s hottest laptops sold out for weeks and months at a time. Graphics-card shortages could also persist, though we don’t expect them to be as severe in 2021. Along with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the latest cards from AMD and Nvidia unveiled last fall were some of the scarcest pieces of tech during the holiday shopping period. Laptops with the new RTX 3000-series GPUs unveiled at CES should be somewhat easier to find over the coming months. 

Ultimately, whatever kind of PC you’re in the market for, there will soon be new silicon to power it, and the chips mentioned above will come to dominate their respective spec lists as 2021 progresses. That’s more important than ever in a stay-at-home world that’s likely to persist into 2021 and give us all the opportunity to get reacquainted with the PC as an essential, revolutionary piece of tech.

January 15, 2021
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