Summary: 2006 was filled with lots of great hardware products, but there were a few that really stood out from the pack. In this article we look back at our top picks in hardware from last year. All of these products were cutting edge and innovative for different reasons, but which one was ultimately the most influential? Find out inside!
2006 ultimately proved to be a good year for tech. After getting off to a somewhat slow start, 2006 eventually brought gamers and hardware enthusiasts some great products: towards the beginning of the year ATI introduced their Radeon X1900 series and NVIDIA their GeForce 7900 family in the high-end graphics segment, while cheaper mainstream parts were introduced as well. Towards the middle of the year, the big hit was Core 2. And of course, at the end of the year we saw the debut of several cheap thrills in graphics from ATI in the form of the Radeon X1650 XT, X1950 Pro, and X1900 XT 256MB, and NVIDIA’s GeForce 7900 GS and 7900 GTO. Quad-core was big at the end of the year as well, with both AMD and Intel releasing quad-processing solutions, although AMD’s Quad FX platform is still MIA as we type this.
Along the way we saw the debut of the 1-kilowatt power supply, memory speeds got faster, hard drives got bigger, and motherboards got more expensive. The latter was really the only downside to 2006.
In this article we’re going to sum up our picks for the 5 top most ground-breaking hardware products released last year. Every year has its fair share of lame ducks as well, so we’ll go over those in a follow-up article.
Before we get to the top 5 though, let’s start with the near misses.
Near Misses (in no particular order)
Nintendo Wii: A year ago it was nearly universally believed that Nintendo’s next console would be a dud. Nintendo was very cryptic on specs, only acknowledging that they weren’t shooting for high-end graphics this time around, and that their focus would instead be on making games for a more mainstream audience by making games that were easier to play with more involving gameplay. Nintendo acknowledged that their new console wouldn’t sport high-definition graphics, and at the time they were still downplaying the importance of online play. Meanwhile, word leaked out from game developers who had access to pre-release hardware that Nintendo’s upcoming console offered little graphically that wasn’t already in place in Xbox 1. In this IGN article, one unnamed game dev called Nintendo’s console a “souped-up Xbox”.
The bottom line was that it looked like Nintendo was giving up on the hardcore gamer in order to appeal to the masses. Keep in mind that these users may or may not be interested in gaming at all.
Jakub played devil’s advocate in his Nintendo: For The Win article, but many of you disagreed with his arguments, seeing no chance for Nintendo to compete successfully with Microsoft and industry heavyweight Sony. The criticism really picked up when Nintendo named their new console Wii. “Nintendo, Wii have a problem” was by far the #1 joke levied at the console.
Boy what a difference a year makes. Not only has the mainstream media embraced Nintendo’s Wii console, the hardcore gaming crowd has too. The Wii’s near universal appeal has led to lots of sales for Nintendo – it was at the top of most shopping lists for a lot of consumers this Christmas.
The Wii just missed our cut however. Its revolutionary controller is without a doubt ground-breaking, but the rest of the console itself is rather mundane, if not a little outdated, and we’re not just talking about the graphics. Nintendo’s online strategy for Wii is still in its infancy stages, and as any PC gamer can tell you, while single-player games are fun, it’s all about getting online and chatting with and playing against other people nowadays.
Considering the tech specs of the console, it’s no surprise to see that Nintendo’s selling it for a profit at $250.
Seagate 7200.10: Each year the hard drive continues to get bigger and bigger, Seagate’s 7200.10 was a prime example of this. The drive sports perpendicular recording technology, as well as denser platters, allowing it to pack in data like never before. The drive also ships with Seagate’s 5-year warranty and boasts a 16MB cache, supports 300MB/sec transfer rates, and supports NCQ.
The 7200.10 is available in capacities ranging from 200GB up to 750GB, and most importantly, is priced aggressively. You can pick up a 250GB 7200.10 HDD with 16MB cache for about $80 on Newegg (and even less for the 8MB cache models, but we’d suggest a 16MB drive), and a 400GB drive for under $140.
The 7200.10 helped to usher in a new era of inexpensive, large-capacity hard drives, and it’s a speedy drive too. What’s not to like about that?
ATI Radeon X1950 XTX: Built on TSMC’s 80-nm manufacturing process, ATI’s Radeon X1950 XTX was designed to make their high-end R580 GPU architecture cheaper for ATI to produce. Its R580+ graphics core supports the same basic specs as R580, only its memory controller has been designed to run with GDDR4 memory. In fact, the Radeon X1950 XTX ships with 512MB of GDDR4 running at 1.0GHz (2.0GHz effective) clock rate. This allows the X1950 XTX to excel at ultra high resolutions like 2560x1600.
ATI also addressed one of the chief criticisms of X1900 XTX: noise. The Radeon X1950 XTX ships with a dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air outside your case, just like the X1900 XTX, only now it runs considerably quieter – it’s nearly silent in fact. Before the debut of NVIDIA’s G80 GPU, the Radeon X1950 XTX’s R580+ GPU was the fastest single graphics chip on the market, and it offered HDR+AA for even better visual quality. The only real downside to the Radeon X1950 XTX is that it predates built-in CrossFire.
Since the Radeon X1950 XTX debuted, ATI has released a slew of new mainstream GPUs that have CrossFire support built-in to the graphics core itself, thus removing the need for CrossFire master cards.
Radeon Xpress 3200 CrossFire: The Xpress 3200 chipset (which has since been renamed the 580X CrossFire chipset by AMD) was a real breakthrough product for ATI, finally proving that they could truly design and build a high-end chipset for the AMD platform. Up to that point, ATI’s success in the chipset segment had been limited to integrated platforms.
The Xpress 3200 chipset delivered exceptional performance and overclocking headroom, all in a package that could run on simple passive cooling. It offered a total of 40 PCI Express lanes with most of those lanes in its North Bridge so that it could drive two 16 lane PCI Express graphics slots at full bandwidth in CrossFire mode. The chipset also supported up to 10 USB 2.0 ports and four 3Gb/sec SATA hard drives with NCQ.
Xpress 3200 was a real hit on the Socket 939 platform, but for whatever reason, it’s been slow to catch on for AM2, with only a handful of motherboards available on the market. It’s a shame too, as it’s really a solid alternative to NVIDIA’s nForce chipset family, particularly for use in HTPCs or other apps where power/heat are a concern.
Core 2 Extreme QX6700 (quad-core): Intel’s Core 2 Extreme QX6700 was the world’s first quad-core CPU, packing four Core 2 processing cores inside a single socket package. Running at 2.67GHz, the Core 2 Extreme QX6700 was outperformed by the Core 2 Extreme X6800 in most gaming benchmarks, but with a little bit of overclocking this could easily be made up.
In the overclocking department, like all Core 2 CPUs, the QX6700 was an overclocking marvel. In fact, Gateway and other PC manufacturers have taken the liberty of factory overclocking the QX6700 to speeds of 3.2GHz and more, complete with warranty. Even Dell, a company which has traditionally shied away from overclocking, provides OC’ing options inside the BIOS of their QX6700-powered XPS 710 desktop system.
The only real downside to the chip is it’s prohibitively expensive. It officially carries a list price of $999, but this is the price Intel charges its distributors in 1K unit pricing, street prices on the CPU are currently a little higher than that. Fortunately Intel is expected to introduce cheaper quad-core CPUs over the course of 2007.
5 – nForce 680i/a chipsets: As tough as it is to compete against Intel in the CPU business, you can argue that in some ways, they’re even tougher in chipsets. Over the years Intel’s chipset business has run into a few roadblocks – most notably during the Pentium III/Rambus fiasco during which VIA was able to capture a large portion of the market – but other than that, Intel’s been a tough competitor.
In order for a company other than Intel to succeed in the chipset business on Intel’s platform you have to design a product that offers significantly more than Intel all while also delivering a solid platform. That’s exactly what NVIDIA has done with their nForce 680i chipset.
One of the chief selling points of the nForce 680i chipset it that it is incredibly forward-looking: nForce 680i is the first chipset to fully support 1333MHz FSB operation. Intel isn’t expected to release their first 1333MHz FSB CPU until the latter half of 2007 and while many P965 motherboards can break the 1333MHz FSB barrier as well, officially it’s considered overclocking. nForce 680i also supports SLI-ready DDR2 memory speeds up to 1200MHz. In comparison, Intel only recently added DDR2-800 support in the G/P 965 family of chipsets. The chipset has also been endowed with 46 PCI Express lanes and supports up to three PCI Express graphics slots. And of course, NVIDIA continues to keep SLI exclusive to their chipsets (although Intel-based motherboards can be hacked to support SLI unofficially).
NVIDIA did hit one snag with nForce 680i however. Some users ran into data corruption and other SATA issues with their nForce 608i motherboards. The problems affected some users with motherboards based on NVIDIA’s reference board design and has since been corrected via a BIOS update that was issued a few weeks ago.
4 – Dell 3007WFP: Dell’s 30” 3007WFP display was by no means the first 30” LCD, Apple’s Cinema display was actually first, but Dell was the first to make 30” considerably cheaper. When it was initially introduced, the 3007WFP sold for hundreds less than the Apple Cinema display, and 3007WFP panels can now be found online for about $1,200, that’s over $1,000 less than prices were a year ago. In fact, Dell has used this formula of providing high-end, feature-packed displays with attractive pricing to catapult themselves to the #1 spot in LCD sales.
The 3007WFP boasts an 11ms grey-to-grey response time (14 ms black-to-black), 700:1 contrast ratio, and 400cd/m2 brightness. The monitor also ships with a 9-in-2 media card reader and sports four USB ports for added connectivity. Since launching the 3007WFP, Dell has announced a newer model, the 2007WFP-HC, which boasts improved color. The 3007WFP is also HDCP-compliant.
The bottom line though is that the introduction of Dell’s 3007WFP had huge implications for the entire LCD market. With its aggressive pricing, the introduction of the 3007WFP had a trickle down effect on the rest of the industry, and as a result, prices on all big monitors came down. You can now buy a 24” LCD for well under $800 in part thanks to Dell’s 3007WFP.
3 – GeForce 7600: NVIDIA has a history of delivering killer mainstream GPUs. After all, they’re the ones who really perfected the segment with the GeForce2 MX. The GeForce 4 Ti 4200 and GeForce 6600 lines were also highly successful mainstream GPUs -- in fact the GeForce 6600 held the number one spot in Valve’s latest hardware survey from November.
With such an established pedigree of mainstream cards, NVIDIA’s GeForce 7600 had some very big shoes to fill. Fortunately, the 7600’s G73 GPU delivered.
The GeForce 7600 is built around a 12 pixel shader architecture, with five vertex shaders and high clock speeds. It has only got a 128-bit memory interface, but the GeForce 7600 GT in particular is capable of outrunning NVIDIA’s prior generation flagship, the GeForce 6800 Ultra, even with AA/AF and other eye candy features cranked up. The most impressive part about the GeForce 7600 is its price: when it was launched, the 7600 GT was priced at an MSRP of $200. And for consumers who couldn’t budget a $200 graphics upgrade, the GeForce 7600 GS shipped with all the 7600 GT’s key features, only it shipped with slightly slower clock speeds and a $150 price tag. The 7600 GS could even run passively and was built with an SLI connector.
2 – GeForce 8800: Coming in a close second on our list is the GeForce 8800 GTX. NVIDIA’s GeForce 8800 is the world’s first DirectX 10 GPU, much to the chagrin of AMD/ATI. It also boasts a radically different architecture than previous NVIDIA GPUs.
The GeForce 8800 features a new unified shading architecture, with what NVIDIA describes as GigaThread and stream processing technologies. The GeForce 8800 is composed of dozens of what NVIDIA has dubbed stream processors, each stream processor can operate on pixel, vertex, physics, or geometry shading; each processor can also dual-issue a MAD and MUL instruction, and supports IEEE-754 floating-point. The stream processors run at speeds of up to 1.35GHz on the GeForce 8800 GTX. Like ATI’s R500 series, the GeForce 8800 splits the processing workload into thousands of independent simultaneously executing threads. NVIDIA doesn’t state exactly how many threads can be in flight at once, only to state “thousands”, GeForce 8800 does boast greater thread granularity than ATI however: 32 pixels versus 48.
The GeForce 8800 also features a wider memory interface than previous high-end GPUs from NVIDIA, with the 8800 GTX sporting a 384-bit interface with 768MB of GDDR3 memory running at 900MHz, providing up to 86.4GB/sec of peak bandwidth to the graphics processor.
As a result of all these changes, the GeForce 8800 delivers revolutionary performance. In our testing, a GeForce 8800 GTX delivered over two times the performance of NVIDIA’s fastest GPU from a year ago, the GeForce 7900 GTX; it also significantly outpaced the GeForce 7950 GX2, which combines two G71 GPUs on one graphics card.
Besides the redesigned graphics core, GeForce 8800 also is the first NVIDIA GPU to support 16x anti-aliasing (this was previously exclusive to SLI), as well as better anisotropic filtering and HDR+AA. To deliver improved visuals without the traditional performance penalty, NVIDIA has added a new coverage sampling AA mode. The goal with CSAA is to deliver near 16xMSAA-like image quality with performance levels closer to 4xMSAA.
The GeForce 8800 is also NVIDIA’s first GPU to boast 10-bit display output and it also delivers improved high definition video playback supporting both 3:2 and 2:2 pulldown (inverse telecine) of HD interlaced content as well as HD noise reduction and HD edge enhancement.
Because of all this, the GeForce 8800 is easily the most sought after graphics card right now. Unfortunately, it’s also prohibitively expensive, a trait which our number one product doesn’t share.
1 – Intel Core 2 Duo: While our list is filled with groundbreaking products that affected their respective categories for different reasons, no product was as influential to the PC industry as a whole than Intel’s Core 2 Duo.
For starters, in many ways Core 2 has saved Intel. Intel’s Netburst architecture used in the Pentium 4/D never fulfilled its promise of hitting breakthrough clock speeds. In fact, Intel never broke 4GHz, which was a goal they expected to hit at one point by the end of 2005. Combine this with Netburst’s low IPC and you’ve got an architecture that’s basically doomed. Meanwhile, AMD’s Athlon 64 line was not only delivering better performance than Intel, but also consumed less power.
Intel tried to narrow the performance gap by integrating more cache into newer Pentium processors, but this wasn’t enough to make up the difference, and as a result made the processor costlier for Intel to manufacture. Intel was then forced to slash Pentium prices, further complicating matters for them. Things got even worse when Intel was forced to issue a string of revenue warnings in late ’05 through early ’06. The only real bright spot for Intel was winning over Apple.
Then came Core 2 in July. Core 2 was an extraordinary processor when it was introduced. The chip featured a wider execution core, allowing the processor to complete up to four full instructions simultaneously and also featured a 14-stage pipeline, allowing the processor to perform more work per clock cycle, one of the chief weaknesses in Pentium 4/D. Core 2 also includes a single, unified L2 cache for increased efficiency as well as being able to execute all 128–bit SSE, SSE2 and SSE3 instructions within one clock cycle, effectively doubling the execution speed for these instructions which are used extensively in multimedia and graphics applications.
As a result of all these changes (and more) Core 2 was not only considerably faster than Intel’s previous Pentium processor, it also significantly outperformed AMD’s fastest Athlon 64 X2 and FX processors, all while generating very little power. Core 2 came along just in time to save Intel from losing further ground to AMD.
But Core 2 didn’t just affect Intel’s fortunes, its introduction also had a profound effect on the rest of the PC industry thanks to Intel’s aggressive Core 2 pricing.
Unlike previous next-gen introductions, Intel offered Core 2 CPUs starting as low as $183 and priced all the way up to $999. Before Core 2 was introduced, CPU manufacturers like Intel only offered their next-gen processor at flagship price tags, $600 or more was the norm, not the exception. For Intel to introduce a top-to-bottom range of Core 2 solutions at a wide range of price points on launch day was simply unprecedented for a next-generation CPU introduction, and the result was AMD was forced to slash prices on their entire lineup of Athlon 64/X2/FX processors.
Practically overnight the price of a dual-core processor was cut in half.
With cheaper CPUs, system manufacturers like Dell and HP were able to slash prices on their desktop systems and you can now build a pretty decent desktop system for well under $500 as a result, without having to resort to using a Celeron or Sempron processor. This also led to a mini-surge in hardware sales, as many of you upgraded to Core 2 CPUs and motherboards last summer.
For all these reasons and more, no product had a more profound effect on the PC industry than Core 2: it was groundbreaking as a high-end product, but thanks to unprecedented pricing, was groundbreaking at the mainstream price segment as well. No other product on this list can claim this, and thus, when combined with Core 2’s outstanding performance, it’s a no-brainer pick for our most innovative product of 2006.
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