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Intel: Throwing down the gauntlet with Nvidia

Intel cuts a broad swath at CES with new CPUs for phones, tablets and Ultrabooks.

Intel swaggered into their CES press briefing like an aging gunfighter ready to take on the cocky young gun. You know, John Wayne versus Clint Eastwood style.

Pundits and analysts have wondered whether Intel can handle the new competition from ARM-based systems. The many companies building many different implementations of ARM, some suggested, would result in a "death by a thousand tiny cuts." But Intel is showing some renewed fighting spirit here at CES 2013.

Intel VP of mobile, Mike Bell, opened up by touting the performance and battery life accomplishments of its current Medfield line of mobile processors. The chief target of Intel's bragging was Nvdia's Tegra 3 mobile processor, which was mentioned more than once during the briefing.

He then moved on to point out its 140-plus design wins for the company's Ultrabook standard. It's an impressive number on the surface, though Intel's actual sales have been less than stellar. After that initial stage setting, Intel dove into the meat of the matter: a bevy of new, and sort-of-new, processors.

Tweaking Atom for emerging markets

First up on Intel's list is the new Atom Z2420 CPU with XMM 6265, code-named Lexington. The dual-core, 1.2GHz chip is designed to run in smartphones for customers in emerging markets, including Africa, parts of Asia and South America. The Z2420 supports HDPSA 3G-plus and HD video encoding and decoding. The design supports 1.3-megapixel front-facing and 5-megapixel rear-facing cameras capable of up to shooting 7 frames per second in burst mode.

As with most Atom processors, Lexington integrates a PowerVR GPU, the SGX 540. This is the same GPU used in Medfield, and is an aging GPU design by current standards. It won't stand up well to more recent graphics processors, but the target (emerging) market may not care much.

Intel showed a reference design phone that is about the same size as the original iPhone, with a 3.5-inch screen. Acer, Safaricom and Lava will be building phones based on Lexington.

Intel also hinted at future Atom plans, including Clover Trail Plus, which will offer twice the performance of Medfield and should have a much needed update to the graphics core.

Bay Trail : the 22-nanometer Atom

Tablets and convertible laptops running Intel's latest Atom Z2760 processor are just now shipping, with roughly ten products currently available. Clover Trail's somewhat sluggish start didn't prevent Intel from touting the next-gen Bay Trail processor. This successor to Clover Trail will be built with Intel's current 22nm manufacturing process, the same used with Ivy Bridge and Haswell.

Intel says Bay Trail will include quad-core designs, and will be shipping by "the 2013 holiday season", but it didn't divulge many other details. Bay Trail will be a full SoC (system-on-chip) design. Rumors from leaked Intel documents also suggest that Bay Trail will implement a "burst" mode, boosting clock frequencies for individual cores for short intervals, similar to the Turbo Boost feature in Intel's Core CPU products for PCs.

It's also believed that Bay Trail will implement Intel's own graphic core, with Intel no longer relying on PowerVR for tablet-class processors. Intel did state that Bay Trail would run both Windows 8 and a highly-tuned version of Android.

The new, new Ivy Bridge

While Intel readies its next generation Haswell CPU, PC manufacturers are clamoring for more immediate solutions to battery life. Current third generation, ultra-low voltage Core CPUs (Ivy Bridge) have a rated design power of 15 to 17 watts. Intel announced at Intel Developer Forum in September, 2012, that Haswell would run at a more sedate 10W.

However, Intel's Bell announced a new line of Ivy Bridge processors with power ratings of just 7 watts. Bell once again brought up Nvidia's Tegra 3, noting that the new laptops and tablets using the new 7W Ivy Bridge processors offered relatively better performance, better compatibility and longer battery life than similarly-equipped Tegra 3 tablets. According to one Intel source, the new Ivy Bridge CPUs have more aggressive power tuning to achieve the power goals, but are "still pretty fast."

One Intel design win is Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 11S, announced earlier here at CES. Lenovo suggests that Yoga 11S will offer a battery life in excess of six hours. Intel also touted an upcoming Acer design that's just 10mm thick, roughly 20 percent thinner and lighter than Acer's current Core i5-based Iconia W700. The new Aspire will weigh just 800 grams (1-3/4 pounds). Bell also showed off a new NEC 15-inch Ultrabook with a maximum thickness of 12.8mm.

Haswell is coming

Intel showed off a convertible laptop reference design at CES 2013. The design includes a fully detachable tablet, with batteries built into both the keyboard dock and the tablet. When docked, Intel declared that battery life would be 13 hours, allowing users to "leave the power brick at home." The tablet alone would run for up to ten hours on one charge.

Tuning Ivy Bridge for better power efficiency seems like a smart move, but I have to wonder if it also hints at problems with Haswell development or manufacturing. Showing off the Haswell hybrid laptop reference design may help assuage those concerns.

But the reference design offers some clever touches. You can detach the tablet with one hand by pressing a button that pulls back the latches, allowing you to just lift up the display from the dock. Also, the LCD is a 13-inch panel, but when you detach the tablet, it reverts to an 11-inch mode. This allows the bezel-less display to be held by the sides without obscuring the visible surface. The tablet alone weighs 850 grams, well under two pounds.

Intel is hoping the new reference design will allow system builders to create Ultrabook-class convertible laptops at lower price points-- as low as $599--which should make Ultrabooks more affordable to more people.

Bottom line: the sleeping giant wakes up

It's not yet clear whether Intel can fight this new war on all fronts, but after the CES 2013 briefing, it's obvious that Intel is now taking the threat seriously. Focusing one of highest visibility ARM developers, Nvidia, gives Intel a clear target, though other ARM licensees are also building ever more efficient and higher performing products.


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