After being blasted by users and pundits over the lack of “low power” in the Atom product line, new architecture and design wins show Intel’s making progress.
Intel EVP Dadi Permutter revealing early convertible tablet computer at IDF2012.
A 10-second Google search on “Intel AND smartphone” reveals endless pundit comments on how Intel hasn’t been winning enough in the low power, smartphone and tablet markets. Business publications wax endlessly on the need for Intel’s new CEO Brian Krzanich to make major changes in company strategy, direction, and executive management in order to decisively win in the portable market. Indications are that Krzanich is shaking things up, and pronto.
Forecasts by IDC (June 2013) and reported by CNET.com (http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57588471-94/shipments-of-smartphones-tablets-and-oh-yes-pcs-to-top-1.7b/) peg the PC+smartphone+tablet TAM at 1.7B units by 2014, of which 82 percent (1.4B units, $500M USD) are low power tablets and smart phones. And until recently, I’ve counted only six or so public wins for Intel devices in this market (all based upon the Atom Medfield SoC with Saltwell ISA I wrote about at IDF 2012). Not nearly enough for the company to remain the market leader while capitalizing on its world-leading tri-gate 3D fab technology.
Behold the Atom, Again
Fortunately, things are starting to change quickly. In June, Samsung announced that the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1-inch SKU would be powered by Intel’s Z2560 “Clover Trail+” Atom SoC running at 1.2GHz. According to PC Magazine, “it’ll be the first Intel Android device released in the U.S.” (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2420726,00.asp)and it complements other Galaxy Tab 3 offerings with competing processors. The 7-inch SKU uses a dual-core Marvell chip running Android 4.1, while the 8-inch SKU uses Samsung’s own Exynos dual-core Cortex-A9 ARM chip running Android 4.2. The Atom Z2560 also runs Android 4.2 on the 10.1-incher. Too bad Intel couldn’t have won all three sockets, especially since Intel’s previous lack of LTE cellular support has been solved by the company’s new XMM 7160 4G LTE chip, and supplemented by new GPS/GNSS silicon and IP from Intel’s ST-Ericsson navigation chip acquisition.
The Z2560 Samsung chose is one of three “Clover Trail+” platform SKUs (Z2760, Z2580, Z2560) formerly known merely as “Cloverview” when the dual-core, Saltwell-based, 32-nm Atom SoCs were leaked in Fall 2012. The Intel alphabet soup starts getting confusing because the Atom roadmap looks like rush hour traffic feeding out of Boston’s Sumner tunnel. It’s being pushed into netbooks (for maybe another quarter or two); value laptops and convertible tablets as standalone CPUs; smartphones and tablets as SoCs; and soon into the data center to compete against ARM’s onslaught there, too.
Clover Trail+ replaces Intel’s Medfield smartphone offering and was announced at February’s MWC 2013. According to Anandtech.com (thank you, guys!) Intel’s aforementioned design wins with Atom used the 32nm Medfield SoC for smartphones. Clover Trail is still at 32nm using the Saltwell microarchitecture but has targeted Windows 8 tablets, while Clover Trail+ targets only smartphones and non-Windows Tablets. That explains the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1-inch design win. The datasheet for Clover Trail+ is here, and shows a dual-core SoC with multiple video CODECs, integrated 2D/3D graphics, on-board crypto, multiple multimedia engines such as Intel Smart Sound, and it’s optimized for Android and presumably, Intel/Samsung’s very own HTML5-based Tizen OS (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Intel Clover Trail+ block diagram used in the Atom Z2580, Z2560, and Z2520 smartphone SoCs. This is 32nm geometry based upon the Saltwell microarchitecture and replaces the previous Medfield single core SoC. (Courtesy: Intel.)
I was unable to find meaningful power consumption numbers for Clover Trail+, but it’s 32nm geometry compares favorably to ARM’s Cortex-A15 28nm geometry so Intel should be in the ballpark (vs Medfield’s 45nm). Still, the market wonders if Intel finally has the chops to compete. At least it’s getting much, much closer–especially once the on-board graphics performance gets factored into the picture compared to ARM’s lack thereof (for now).
Silvermont and Bay Trail and…Many More Too Hard to Remember
But Intel knows they’ve got more work to do to compete against Qualcomm’s home-grown Krait ARM-based ISA, some nVidia offerings, and Samsung’s own in-house designs. Atom will soon be moving to 22nm and the next microarchitecture is called Silvermont. Intel is finally putting power curves up on the screen, and at product launch I’m hopeful there will be actual Watt numbers shown, too.
For example, Intel is showing off Silvermont’s “industry-leading performance-per-Watt efficiency” (Figure 2). Press data from Intel says the architecture will offer 3x peak performance, or 5x lower power compared to the Clover Trail+ Saltwell microarchitecture. More code names to track: the quad-core Bay Trail SoC for 2013 holiday tablets; Merrifield with increased performance and battery life; and finally Avoton that provides 64-bit energy efficiency for micro servers and boasts ECC, Intel VT and possibly vPro and other security features. Avoton will go head-to-head with ARM in the data center where Intel can’t afford to lose any ground.
Figure 2: The 22nm Atom microarchitecture called Silvermont will appear in Bay Trail, Avoton and other future Atom SoCs from “Device to Data Center”, says Intel. (Courtesy: Intel.)
Oh Yeah? Who’s Faster Now?
As Intel steps up its game because it has to win or else, the competition is not sitting still. ARM licensees have begun shipping big.LITTLE SoCs, and the company has announced new graphics, DSP, and mid-range cores. (Read Jeff Bier and BDTi’s excellent recent ARM roadmap overview here.)
A recent report by ABI Research (June 2013) tantalized (or more appropriately galvanized) the embedded and smartphone markets with the headline “Intel Apps Processor Outperforms NVIDA, Qualcomm, Samsung”. In comparison tests, ABI Research VP of engineering Jim Mielke noted that that Intel Atom Z2580 ”not only outperformed the competition in performance but it did so with up to half the current drain.”
The embedded market didn’t necessarily agree with the results, and UBM Tech/EETimes published extensive readers’ comments with colorful opinions. On a more objective note, Qualcomm launched its own salvo as we went to press, predicting “you’ll see a whole bunch of tablets based upon the Snapdragon 800 in the market this year,” said Raj Talluri, SVP at Qualcomm, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek.
Qualcomm has made its Snapdragon product line more user-friendly and appears to be readying the line for general embedded market sales in Snapdragon 200, 400, 600, and “premium” 800 SKU versions. The company has made available development tools (mydragonboard.org/dev-tools) and is selling COM-like Dragonboard modules through partners such as Intrinsyc.
Intel Still Inside
It’s looking like a sure thing that Intel will finally have competitive silicon to challenge ARM-based SoCs in the market that really matters: mobile, portable, and handheld. 22nm Atom offerings are getting power-competitive, and the game will change to an overall system integration and software efficiency exercise.
Intel has for the past five years been emphasizing a holistic all-system view of power and performance. Their work with Microsoft has wrung out inefficiencies in Windows and capitalizes on microarchitecture advantages in desktop Ivy Bridge and Haswell CPUs. Security is becoming important in all markets, and Intel is already there with built-in hardware, firmware, and software (through McAfee and Wind River) advantages. So too has the company radically improved graphics performance in Haswell and Clover Trail+ Atom SoCs…maybe not to the level of AMD’s APUs, but absolutely competitive with most ARM-based competitors.
And finally, Intel has hedged its bets in Android and HTML5. They are on record as writing more Android code (for and with Google) than any other company, and they’ve migrated past MeeGo failures to the might-be-successful HTML5-based Tizen OS which Samsung is using in select handsets.
As I’ve said many times, Intel may be slow to get it…but it’s never good to bet against them in the long run. We’ll have to see how this plays out.