ARM vs. Intel: Clash of the Processing Titans

Not all that long ago, Microsoft announced that they were including support for ARM processors in Windows 8. Those of you familiar with the smartphone and tablet markets will probably see the relevance of this move by Microsoft: ARM produces the designs which have backed the majority of smartphones, tablets and handheld gaming devices over the last ten years. Microsoft’s announcement brings the world’s most popular line of operating systems to the world’s most popular line of 32-bit processors, and could well be the move that Microsoft needs to make to compete with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android on a level pegging in the tablet market.

The story of ARM itself is rather interesting. ARM Holdings, plc. started out with the processor design part of Acorn Computers Ltd., designing RISC processors for the Acorn Archimedes, a powerful British educational computer of the early 1990s. While the Archimedes never attained the success that it deserved, with its advanced operating system and powerful hardware, the processor moved beyond Acorn when Apple chose it for their Newton project. It was discovered that the simple RISC design of the processor made it very frugal with electrical power, which soon made it popular in handheld and embedded devices.

Not having fabrication facilities of their own, ARM has licensed the ARM architecture to many companies, including Apple, Nvidia, Nintendo and Texas Instruments. ARM processors are estimated to make up 90% or more of the 32-bit RISC processor market, with applications in mobile phones, particularly smartphones, tablets, portable media players, handheld gaming devices and in computer peripherals. Recently, ARM’s processor designs have taken massive strides in improvement as the iPhone introduced the smartphone to the wider public, after years of being targeted towards business users. Since 2005, ARM processors have hit clock speeds in excess of 1GHz, and dual- and quad-core processors are being introduced.

Now, with Microsoft entering the game with a fully-capable desktop-style operating system on the ARM architecture, ARM has entered a market share currently dominated by Intel. Intel is a company which needs little introduction, with a history spanning from the very first microprocessor design from the Traitorous Eight to the present day, where Intel and AMD’s x86 architecture underpins the entire mainstream of personal computers. IBM’s use of the Intel 8088 was important in the early spread of the IBM-compatible computer, with an easily reverse-engineered BIOS which allowed clone manufacturers to quickly produce cheap alternatives to IBM’s expensive, business-targeted machines, and Intel rode the wave as Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows operating systems became popular with everyday users. Eventually, even Apple, who were content with the PowerPC architecture for years, adopted the x86 architecture for their iMac and MacBook computers. Today, all but a small subset of niche-market workstations carry an Intel design within their hardware.

By announcing a port of Windows 8 to the ARM architecture, perhaps Microsoft are tacitly acknowledging that there has been a strong shift in the software market since Apple’s introduction of the iPhone. Intel and Microsoft have remained strong in the personal computer market by virtue of an extremely large and extensive software library dating back ultimately to the mid-1980s. Apple, and to a lesser extent, Android, have marketed their devices on the idea of applications, yet Windows possesses millions or tens of millions of applications versus the scant few hundred thousand for iOS or Android, an advantage which would not be carried over immediately to the ARM port. However, the power-hungry nature of the complex x86 architecture, which was originally CISC and later CISC code on RISC hardware, has held back Intel from attaining any real success in the new smartphone and tablet markets which have acquired so much public interest. Even the relatively frugal Atom processors found in netbooks are considerably more power-hungry than ARM’s processor designs.

This creates quite an interesting situation between the two companies. With ARM designing new quad-core processors to compete with Intel’s Atom processors, and Intel looking for ways to reduce the power consumption of their processors in order to maintain their distinct advantage in terms of software libraries, the two companies seem to be trying to out-manoeuvre each other. Intel may simply decide to absorb the much smaller British company into its ranks by using its financial clout, or else it may decide to try to take on ARM face-to-face by continuing to develop its x86 architecture for lower power consumption. Alternatively, it could introduce a new architecture altogether, although they would be wise to take a note from history and remember the lessons learned with the Itanium processor debacle circa 2001.

What we have here is the strongest competition that Intel has faced for years. It also represents the first significant attack on the x86 architecture’s dominant position in personal computing since the early 1990s. Of course, the x86 architecture won’t simply die from nibbles at the low-end computing end of its market share – it’s too deeply integrated into business applications, servers and supercomputing for that. However, this does represent one facet of a major shift in personal computing, where portable devices such as smartphones and tablets represent more people’s interaction with computing than desktops and laptops. ARM are positioned nicely to take full advantage of this, and Intel will need to act quickly if they don’t want to be left playing catch-up.

Fallout: New Vegas – A Comprehensive Review

Bethesda Softworks’ release of Fallout 3 in 2008 went a long way in reviving a series which looked to have been milked for all it was worth, and brought a new set of fans for the series. Yet, while the new fans were being entertained by Fallout 3, some of the older fanbase – including myself – bemoaned the game for its poor story and dialogue, the liberties taken with the canon, and the disappointing ending. When the development of Fallout: New Vegas was announced, I must admit that I felt a bit of trepidation. Obsidian Entertaiment was composed of members of the Fallout development team when Black Isle was at its prime, but were they the right people to take up the mantle of a new Fallout game?

Fallout: New Vegas directly follows the story of Fallout 2, in a world where the New California Republic has expanded from its beginnings from Shady Sands and the denizens of Vault 15 to absorb and subsume other parts of California and Oregon, including Vault City, New Reno and Redding. The NCR’s expansion plan takes them east, into the harsh and unforgiving Mojave Desert in search of a city which appears to have survived the Great War intact. Their search brings them to Nevada and to the city of New Vegas, its shining lights beaming through the Mojave as in the Old World, and to Hoover Dam, the massive hydroelectric plant still in repairable order. However, as NCR troops enter New Vegas, they are encountered by representatives of three tribal families and a small army of robots, all working under the authority of the enigmatic and mysterious Mr. House.

Trade agreements with Mr. House enable the NCR to redirect power from the dam to the home states of the Republic, along with allowing NCR soldiers and citizens to enter the Strip for recreational purposes. Mr. House also allows the NCR to establish an embassy on the Strip, with the proviso that no NCR citizen could be prohibited from entering the city. However, the NCR’s attempts to repair Hoover Dam are nearly halted in their tracks by the arrival of Caesar’s Legion, a large, organised group of slavers who extol the characteristics of the Roman Empire. An attempt by the Legion to conquer Hoover Dam was only barely halted by the NCR, and the two sides have formed an impasse, with the NCR on one side of the Colorado River, at bases at McCarran Airport and along the river, and the Legion on the other side, in a large fortification known as Fortification Hill, or simply The Fort.

The player takes the role of the Courier, hired by the Mojave Express to deliver a package to Mr. House. However, as the Courier enters the New Vegas area, he – or she – is ambushed, robbed of their delivery package, shot and left to die in an unmarked grave just outside the town of Goodsprings. After being removed from the grave by Victor, a robot of the hitherto unseen Securitron variety, and treated by Goodsprings’ doctor, Dr. Mitchell, the Courier goes out into the Mojave once more in order to retrieve the Platinum Chip that was stolen. The NCR and Caesar’s Legion have assembled their forces for a final showdown at Hoover Dam. The scene is set for a titanic showdown which looks set to determine the future of New Vegas, of the dam and of the Mojave Wasteland.

In the development of Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian drew in elements from the incomplete game which was to have been the third instalment of the main series, Van Buren, with various changes to their implementation to deal with the smaller geographical area. Gameplay-wise, though, Fallout: New Vegas strongly resembles Fallout 3, and could be best described as a refined variant of the first/third-person action role-playing action that distinguished Fallout 3 from its predecessors in the series. The skill set has been cleaned up somewhat, removing the Small Guns and Big Guns categories, and placing their weapons into the Guns and Explosives skills accordingly. The new Survival skill ties into the expanded crafting mechanics, and is of particular concern to the new Hardcore mode, in which the character must eat, sleep and drink, in which ammunition has weight as in the original Fallout games, and in which healing takes place over time, rather than being instantaneous.

In an increased attempt to make non-weapon skills useful, the crafting mechanic has been expanded to include the ability to hand-load ammunition using shell casings, powder and lead at a reloading bench, along with cooking and the production of poisons at a campfire. The reloading mechanic is particularly welcome, allowing for the recycling of excess stockpiled ammunition, as well as the casting of rare ammunition types, including certain enhanced ammunition exclusive to the reloading bench. Meanwhile, the cooking mechanic gives a new use to those boxes of Cram which seem to be littered around the wasteland, allowing a skilled player to produce food which can heal more effectively and, in Hardcore Mode, which satiates the character’s hunger for longer.

Another new addition to the series is the “true ironsights” configurable option, which ties into a general tightening-up of the shooting mechanics. VATS has been weakened from Fallout 3, and in its place, the shooting mechanics feel somewhat more satisfying, at least at long range, where long rifles feel a bit more useful than they did in Fallout 3. Indeed, weapons under the Guns skill feel a lot more capable of getting one to the end of the game than in Fallout 3, and it is perfectly possible for somebody to focus on one weapon skill – apart from possibly Explosives – and to have few problems proceeding onwards.

The biggest way in which Fallout: New Vegas is distinct to its immediate predecessor is that it feels like a character- and dialogue-oriented game, rather than the exploration-oriented approach of Fallout 3. One of my biggest disappointments with Fallout 3 was its rather poor storyline, in which one felt railroaded into a set of actions, even when they didn’t make logical sense for your character, and which worked to the detriment of the rest of the game. Fallout: New Vegas, on the other hand, allows for a greater amount of flexibility with the storyline, with four distinct paths for one to set on, a lot of choices to make in the wasteland, and far more logical consistency than Fallout 3. This does come at a cost, as the start of the game is very linear in terms of exploration, with powerful creatures making progression directly towards New Vegas difficult, but as this approach was taken – albeit more subtly – in both Fallout and Fallout 2, so this will only be a big concern to the players who enjoyed Fallout 3 primarily because of the exploration elements.

Another area which Fallout: New Vegas improves on is the portrayal of its characters. Unlike Fallout 3, in which most of the main characters felt bland or clichéd, Fallout: New Vegas takes more care with several of its characters, giving them a bit more life beyond being simple quest markers. This is of particular note when it comes to the leaders of each faction, and also with the companion characters, all of which possess a well-crafted backstory and a personal quest which progresses their characterisation further. This makes a good comparison to the pack mule approach taken by Fallout 3, and even, to a lesser extent, by Fallout and Fallout 2.

A welcome change to the dynamic of the game is the lessened importance of the karma meter, displaced by the Fallout 2 approach of community reputations, which has been expanded to allow for a broader variety of different reputations. A greater logical consistency is created with NPC reactions, something which felt lacking in Fallout 3. What’s more, this allows for a bit more moral ambiguity within the game universe, a far cry from the rather binary set of moral interactions which resulted from Fallout 3‘s reliance on the karma meter.

Aesthetically, Fallout: New Vegas is not particularly impressive. Fallout 3, also built on the Gamebryo engine, was not particularly graphically impressive when it made its appearance in 2008. With no significant improvements to graphics, Fallout: New Vegas looks mediocre, particularly in the wake of extremely GPU-intensive but especially flashy game engines for the PC in the interim. Sounds are effective, but not particularly striking, and simply serve their purpose without going beyond the call of duty.

Inon Zur’s backing music from Fallout 3 returns, with a few extra tracks added to the mix. Again, I’d argue that this music is just there to create the right sense of ambience, and rarely goes beyond that purpose. Some Fallout and Fallout 2 players will note the return of some of the music of Mark Morgan from these games, but again, this music always seemed to just serve a purpose with the exception of a few tracks which didn’t make it into Fallout: New Vegas.

As with Fallout 3, a healthy number of licensed tracks make their way into the game via the Pip-Boy 3000’s radio. Some players may prefer this music to the standard soundtrack, while others may tire quickly of the repetition of the small library of tracks, but it’s nice to see the option retained. The music also creates the ambience of civilisation within communities, so in that sense, it’s still worth having within the game.

Unfortunately, there is one very negative area in which Fallout: New Vegas has followed in the footsteps of its predecessors. Even with the several months having progressed since the launch date, Fallout: New Vegas is still a buggy game, with graphical glitches and clipping issues still remaining. While the Fallout series has not had a reputation for faultless programming, partially a consequence of its extensive scope, it’s disappointing and jarring to have an enemy – or worse, yourself – stuck in the side of a rock with no way to escape.

The PC version’s integration with Steamworks may also cause problems for some players, particularly those with unreliable or slow internet connections. While the system has merits, and certainly beats Fallout 3‘s connection to the maligned Games for Windows system, it’s not a comforting precedent to have games intrinsically tied to a single distribution service, even if that service is superior to some of its competitors.

Nevertheless, Fallout: New Vegas certainly progresses the series, working on the framework of Fallout 3, while taking more influence from the preceding Fallout games and instituting some of the visions that were planned for Van Buren. Paradoxically, in terms of the series progression, it may have made more sense to term this to be the third instalment in the main series, and have named Fallout 3 something along the lines of Fallout: Capital Wasteland. Either way, Fallout: New Vegas is a reasonably well-crafted and frequently fun game which only suffers from the minor disappointment of persistent bugs.

Bottom Line: Fallout: New Vegas progresses the series nicely, refining the gameplay elements of Fallout 3, while furthering the canon of and taking influence from the first two Fallout games. Bugs are still a present and frustrating element of the series.

Recommendation: Fans of Fallout 3 may be mixed on the game, with its emphasis of dialogue and social interaction over exploration. Nevertheless, it’s worth a try, especially on the rental-friendly Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms. Fans of the first Fallout games will get more out of this than Fallout 3, and should buy the game.