Tales of the chips: What CES taught us about hardware, software, and services


Every year I try to look at some of the chips shown at CES to help predict the future of our devices and technology. But this year other than two trends worth noting I had a tough time pinpointing anything specific or new. Part of my angst is because we’re seemingly at a point where our hardware is capable of doing so much that the focus has shifted to software and services. As I’m sure you’ve heard, they’re eating the world.

Instead of chips, we should be looking at the types of deals companies are striking to share APIs and SDKs to build out ecosystems in the connected home, the connected car and whatever other connected venues we want to consider. Because just like software has eaten the world, services are doing the same. And while in an ideal world we’ll see a lot of open implementations of SDKs that let people integrate different services without some kind of negotiated deal, today we’re still at the labor-intensive stage where a company like Sonos controls who and how people can connect to its music player.

So at CES I spent more time checking out which companies were doing deals with each other, because those are the deals that are most likely to affect my devices and services in the coming year. But since I’m a hardware nerd I’ll offer up two notable chip-related insights from the show.

You will wear your tech, by golly! Everyone from Freescale to CSR wireless and Intel launched some kind of package for wearable computing. While I don’t buy into the smart watch (The Pebble Steel might change my mind) smaller package sizes and ready-to-install components are paving the way for connected jewelry and opening up the wearable platform for startups and makers interested in designing something small, connected and fashion-conscious.

We’re going to need powerful computing in the home, but no one knows where it will sit: Whether it was ST’s 64-bit chip for the set top box that anticipates far greater addressable memory and a need for some fat programs running on what was formerly a pretty staid computer, or Qualcomm’s new internet processor for home gateways, there’s a clear sense that the home is going to need some kind of higher-end computer. The only question is where.

Qualcomm is packing a networking processor with more capabilities because it thinks the array of connected devices inside the home is going to need more bandwidth for parsing the incoming streams. ST’s vision embraces more cached media content inside the home and a need to access a lot of power to transcode a variety of different streams from 4K for big screen televisions and 720p or so for tablets.

Finally, the biggest disruptions we’ve seen for hardware and chips actually came out well before CES with the launch of the iPhone 5s. With both a 64-bit processor and a purpose built M7 co-processor for taking sensor data away from the main processor, Apple gifted the tech world with some innovative silicon that puts lie to the idea that our current state of hardware is good enough.

I was hoping to see something at CES that topped that, but I didn’t.



What I saw was a nice step forward in some areas. Qualcomm had some nice chip announcements as well as Intel.

Broadcom excited me with their WICED stuff including what appears to be some nice Airplay enhancements (Synchronization and Zoning features IIRC)

Still waiting for Qualcomm/Atheros HomePlug AV2 MIMO stuff which won’t be out in force until Spring/Summer. For homes like mine that aren’t wired with Ethernet I need a way of making a physical connection between the floors of my home. Even with 11ac I’m not going to get the type of bandwidth I need throughout my home.

The wearables didn’t impress me. I have a Nike Fuel band and Jawbone UP sitting in my drawer. To me they just don’t provide enough data that offsets wearing something clunky on my wrist and needing to charge every week.

Really why should you pay $100-150 for something that is inferior to your Smartphone. Once you’ve cycled or ran with a GPS enabled app like Strava or Runkeeper you will never look these wearables as anything but toys. They don’t map your trip, they won’t understand if you’ve gone up/down a hill (no altimeter) and they cannot do things like splits that cyclist and runners love. Many of them are a waste of money.


Stacey, not to sounds zen-ish, but what did you expect on the chip front? 128 bits? I do see a number of the chip guys making new ground (albeit unto themselves). VC9 and HEVC are common place. And so is 11ac. Doubling the number of cores is not considered game-changer anymore (Didn’t MTK announce octa cores last year already?). Nvidia loves to cram hundreds of GPU cores…all those ginormous TVs have a lot horse power churning up the 4K videos. In all, the CES did throw up quite a bit on the chip front. Note of course that a chip without a compelling product / app is of little value in a show like CES.

Yes, the Moore’s law is still not dead, and other paradigms in the semiconductor world are far from being mainstream. Nevertheless, from a CES-like show, there isn’t much more to expect from the chips. Or not ?

Stacey Higginbotham

In previous years, I’ve seen some new functionality like voice co-processing that allows for always-on listening that you see in devices like the Moto X or some cool MIMO functionality or something. It’s not a chip show per se, but a lot of times you can ferret some insights out of it if you look for them. This year, I looked, but didn’t see much.

Richard Bennett

Chips are so customizable these days they’re kinda hard to recognize. Underneath those APIs and SDKs are some interesting ASICs, which is what the M7 is.


Great post Stacey. When iPhone 5s came out with 64-bit processing, Apple upped the ante significantly. Very interesting insight that nothing at CES topped A7 and M7.

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