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Intel wakes up and smells the post-PC era

Nov 22, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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At its investor meeting on Nov. 21, Intel exhibited its readiness to face the new realities of the “post-PC era.” Led by CEO Brian Krzanich, top executives outlined strategic efforts to speed its mobile Atom system-on-chips toward 14 and 10nm geometries, 64-bits, and integrated basebands, and to look beyond Windows on the client end, with increased focus on iOS and Linux-based OSes like Android and Chrome OS.

While Intel has been talking up mobile plans for several years, there’s been more talk than action, and the slumping PC business is forcing the issue to the fore. With Intel’s new CEO Brian Krzanich, there appears to be a greater urgency to the message.

Krzanich announced an acceleration of Intel’s Atom processor roadmap for mobile devices, with both dual- and quad-core Merrifield SoC variations on its 22nm “Silvermont” Atoms due in the first and second half of 2014, respectively, followed by two processors based on the Intel’s 14nm Airmont core: the Cherry Trail and the cost-efficient Sofia. The Sofia will be the first 64-bit Atom and the first to include an integrated baseband, and will be followed by a 14nm, 64-bit Broxton design in 2015.

According to an on-site report from IDG News’s Agam Shah, Krzanich said that by 2016, Intel plans to boost mobile chip graphics performance by 15 times and CPU performance by five times.

Intel’s Atom processors have been a significant presence in the embedded market, but have only recently begun to break into smartphones and tablets with 32nm Clover Trail+ Atoms, such as the Atom Z2580. Further product wins are expected soon from tablets running on the Atom Z3000 (Bay Trail-T) SoC, which uses the 22nm, 3D Tri-Gate “Silvermont” architecture. Yet, Intel’s mobile market share is still miniscule, and mobile ARM SoCs continue to advance as well. In addition, ARM is now digging into the Atom’s share of the general embedded market.

Remarks by Intel executives revealed disappointment in neglecting the Atom in favor of Core processors in recent years. “Atom is now an equal partner with Core,” Krzanich was quoted as saying by Barron’s. “We still expect 2x performance [from Core], but we’re not going to slow down Core to get there.”

Meanwhile, AllThingsD quoted Intel chairman Andy Bryant as telling investors, “I was personally embarrassed that we seemed to have lost our way.” The story also quotes Krzanich as saying Intel planned to quadruple Intel’s tablet business to more than 40 million units in 2014.

One key to Intel’s mobile plans is building its own integrated, x86-based baseband processors, which it will first accomplish a year from now with its entry-level, 14nm Sofia platform. Intel also plans to codify perceptual computing tasks such as gesture and speech recognition in Atom silicon, according to Barron’s.

Here’s a look at the new Intel Atom roadmap through 2015:

 
22nm Silvermont: Merrifield

As Intel had previously tipped, it will extend its 22nm Silvermont architecture into a new smartphone-oriented Merrifield SoC design in the first half of 2014. This will be followed by a quad-core Merrifield model in the second half of the year, presumably addressed more at tablets. Silvermont cores were originally promised to deliver about 3x the peak performance of the Clover Trail+ Atoms “or” up to 5x their power efficiency.


First Quark SoC

It’s unclear whether Intel met those ambitious, but somewhat ambiguous goals, but based on the 5 to 10-Watt TDPs claimed by Intel for its embedded-focused, Silvermont-based Atom E3800 (“Bay Trail-I”) SoCs recently released by Intel, Merrifield should greatly improve the Atom’s efficiency, which is essential for competing with ARM-Cortex-A9 and –A15 processors. Intel is also sampling an even more power-efficient, Linux-ready Quark processor line aimed at Internet of Things applications.

In September, Intel released another Silvermont-based SoC design called the Atom C2000 family. It’s available in both micro-server focused “Avoton” and networking-oriented “Rangeley” versions.

 
14nm Airmont: Cherry Trail and Sofia

By the end of 2014, Intel expects to ship two SoC designs based on its previously announced 14nm “Airmont” architecture: the Cherry Trail, aimed at smartphones and tablets, and the Sofia, designed for entry-level smartphones. Interestingly, the first 64-bit Atom will be the lower end Sofia, rather than the Cherry Trail, accordingly to Intel slides reproduced on VR-Zone.

Sofia is also unique in other ways. It will be the first Atom processor with an integrated baseband chip. This will initially be 3G, but will move to 4G LTE in 2015. It will also be the first Atom built by a third-party foundry, although Intel hopes to bring it in house by the end of 2015.

According to several reports, the choice to farm out the Sofia’s manufacturing was made in order to accelerate development of the SoC, which appears intended to feed the fast-growing market for budget smartphones in emerging nations. In fact, several reports said Intel initially planned to use an ARM-based design for Sofia’s baseband, but recently decided to pivot the design to an x86 baseband core.

 
14nm Goldmont: Broxton

Intel’s second 64-bit Atom will be a more power-efficient successor to the Cherry Trail called the Broxton, due in mid-2015. Based on a new “Goldmont” core architecture, Broxton will target high-performance devices. It will debut a modular “chassis” design that enables a processor to be swapped out, upgraded with new features, and popped back in.

Beyond Broxton, Intel had no more Atoms to announce, but said it plans to deliver a 10nm Atom by 2015 or 2016. According to Intel, this unnamed processor will boost graphics by 15 times and CPU power by five times compared to current (presumably Silvermont-based) Atom designs. Intel did not appear to make similarly specific claims about power efficiency. Still, at 14nm and 10nm, and aided by its Tri-Gate technology, power consumption should drop significantly. Whether it will match whatever ARM has ready by that time is another story.

 
Intel opens up Foundry — and shifts toward iOS and Linux-based OSes

Not only is Intel using other unnamed foundries for its Sofia SoC, it plans to expand its small contract foundry business to third party customers, according to several reports, including Reuters. In fact, Intel already surprised the industry recently when it came to light that Altera’s new quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 based Stratix 10 SX SoC will be built by Intel. The FPGA-enabled Stratix SoC will be the first processor to be manufactured with Intel’s 14nm 3D Tri-Gate process, beating out the upcoming Cherry Trail/Airmont SoC by months.

Intel is hoping to more aggressively compete with the production of ARM chips that currently use Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), says the story. Reuters also speculates that Intel may be aiming to steal Apple’s manufacturing business away from another major foundry competitor, Samsung.

Intel is also hoping to convince Apple to try out its upcoming Atoms for future iOS devices, according to a report in The Register. The Register story, titled “Wintel must welcome Antel and Chrotel into cosy menage,” quotes Intel’s PC chief Kirk Skaugen as saying Intel is rapidly expanding away from Microsoft’s Windows on the client end, and directing its efforts toward supporting iOS and Linux-based operating systems like Android, Chrome OS, and others. Skaugen said he expected a considerable business to arise from Chrome OS, and he also singled out “Ubuntu for praise as well.”

 
Slides from Krzanich and Eul presentation

Selected slides from the presentations by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, and Hermann Eul, VP and GM of Intel’s Mobile and Communications Group, appear below.


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