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Intel rebuffs ARM with tiny low-power Quark

Sep 10, 2013 — by Eric Brown 3,646 views

On day one of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF), new Intel CEO Brian Krzanich revealed plans for a 32nm, Pentium ISA-compatible “Quark” processor requiring a tenth the power of Intel’s latest “Silvermont” Atom chips, and designed for low-power applications ranging from “Internet-of-Things” (IoT) apps to wearable computing. He also spoke of an upcoming 14nm “Broadwell” processor, and promised 7nm CPUs by 2017.

The first day of IDF 2013 was one of the first opportunities the public had to see new Intel CEO and former COO Brian Krzanich in action, as well as new president Renee James. Both execs took office in May. Krzanich, who replaced longtime CEO Paul Otellini, sounded many of the same themes Otellini has pushed in recent years, including the importance of quickly pivoting to mobile. The new CEO also hailed the emerging field of wearables, and announced a new product family aimed at the segment and other small footprint, low-power applications, called the Quark.

Intel CEO Krzanich with Quark chip and Quark-based devices
(click images to enlarge)


Intel offered few details on its upcoming Quark, but said it will be one-fifth the size and will consume one-tenth the power of the new “Silvermont” Atom processors announced in May and just now beginning to ship in products. Quark’s applications will include wearables, but Intel also sees a big market in low-power, wireless-enabled “Internet of Things” devices in the industrial, energy, and transportation segments.


Sample form-factor reference boards based on the first Quark processor are due in the fourth quarter, which would suggest the potential for new products in 2014. Krzanich did not mention OS support, but the Atom comparison combined with the Quark’s Pentium ISA compatibility suggest it will run advanced OSes such as Linux. Currently ARM-based SoCs provide full Linux compatibility while consuming significantly less power than Intel’s Atom SoCs, but the Quark would appear to enable Intel to compete head-to-head — or better — with ARM.

The Quark development platform will provide “a standard fabric you can attach your IP to,” Krzanich was quoted as saying by ZDNet. As usual, Intel does not plan to license the architecture, but it appears to be opening it up to more customization. “If you have sensors, algorithms, accelerators you can do that and get it manufactured with Intel,” the CEO was quoted as saying.

There has been plenty of buzz about wearables this summer, with Google making strides with its Google Glass device and Samsung getting a jump on Apple’s iWatch with its recent unveiling of the Galaxy Gear. All the smartwatches to date have run on ARM processors or lowlier microcontrollers, but the market is young enough that Intel hopes to get an earlier lead, rather than playing catch-up as it has with the smartphone and tablet markets.

Later in the show, President Renee James showed off a “AMC10 silicon” based medical patch “that sits on a person’s skin and sends EKG and other health readings back to a doctor,” according to ZDNet. The demonstration was part of a presentation that promised an increasing Intel role in healthcare, ranging from server technology to embedded chips like the Quark.

A 14nm Broadwell, on the road to 7nm by 2017

Intel’s Krzanich also announced that the previously tipped 14nm “Broadwell” processor would begin production by year’s end, and he demonstrated a prototype to the IDF audience. Without offering details, he said the architecture would offer “higher performance, longer battery life and low platform power” compared to the recently released 22nm 4th Generation “Haswell” Core processors. The first Broadwell processors would offer a 30 percent power improvement, with more efficiencies expected in later designs, Krzanich told the audience. The initial designs due to reach products next year will be primarily aimed at 2-in-1 and fanless devices and Ultrabooks, as well as other PC designs.

Krzanich also demonstrated an Ultrabook running the previously tipped 4.5 Watt Haswell variant called “Haswell-Y.” Although the 4.5 Watt rating is based on Intel’s new “Scenario Design Power” (SDP) approach to rating power consumption, which yields lower numbers than the “TDP” system does, Haswell-Y’s SDP is still low enough that both its Core i5 and i7 versions can support fanless configurations, according to Krzanich.

While Broadwell looks to replace Haswell, the lower power Intel Atom is heading for 14nm as well, said Krzanich. He confirmed earlier promises that the 14nm “Airmont” Atom design is still on course for 2014.

Tomorrow, Intel is expected to reveal more details about the first system-on-chip design that will use the new 22nm Silvermont Atom architecture. The “Bay Trail” SoC is aimed at tablets, and will ship by the end of the year. Bay Trail seemed to be in mind when Krzanich teased the audience with the prospect of Intel-based Android or Windows tablets selling for as little as $100 by year’s end. The smartphone-focused “Merrifield” SoC design based on Silvermont is due in early 2014.

Silvermont is the first Atom architecture to use the Tri-Gate 3D transistor technology available in Ivy Bridge, Haswell, and soon, Broadwell Core processors. Together with the 22nm fabrication, the 3D technology results in peak performance that is three times that of current Atoms or up to five times their power efficiency, according to earlier Intel claims.

According to Renee James, meanwhile, 14nm fabrication will be supplanted with a 10nm design in 2015, and 7nm in 2017. With this level of miniaturization, wearable computing would “transform every area of our life,” James told the audience.

More information about these and other Intel announcements regarding datacenter products, may be found at the IDF 2013 press page.

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