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New wave of tablets with Intel Bay Trail chip will start at $99

Dozens of new tablets are expected out by year's end

Dozens of tablets, some priced as low as US$99, are expected out by year's end running on new Intel Atom processors, which began shipping Wednesday.

Bay Trail represents a reboot for Intel in the tablet market after its previous tablet chips failed. Bay Trail will go up against ARM processors, which power the iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Google Nexus and other notable tablets. The company is trying to convince attendees at the Intel Developer Forum this week in San Francisco that it is starting anew with Bay Trail, and to dispel notions that its tablet chips are watered-down versions of power-hungry x86 PC chips.

The latest Atom Z3000 series processors are for tablets with screens sizes of 7 inches to 10 inches. The tablets will offer more than eight hours of battery life to users watching high-definition video and also weeks of standby power, thanks to new features in the Bay Trail chips, said Chris Walker, general manager of tablets at Intel's Mobile Communications Group, in an interview this week before the Intel Developer Forum opened in San Francisco.

Android tablets with the chips will chips will start at $99, said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich during an IDF keynote Tuesday. The first wave of tablets will have the Windows 8.1 OS, quad-core Atom Z3700 processors and start at around $350, with the less-expensive Android tablets appearing at the end of the year and running on either the quad-core chip or the dual-core Z3600 chips, which will only work with Android tablets.

The tablets could be as light as 400 grams and measure as little as 8 millimeters in thickness, Walker said before the show.

The Bay Trail tablets will also be more responsive, the company said. Applications will run twice as fast and graphics will be three times faster than on previous Intel Atom chips code-named Clover Trail, which shipped last September after IDF and went into 12 tablets from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Lenovo.

Walker said the new tablet chips have been fundamentally redesigned for mobile devices and can beat ARM on CPU performance metrics, while being competitive on power consumption. Based on internal benchmarks, Intel said its Bay Trail chips are faster on CPU performance than Nvidia's Tegra 4 and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800, which are the latest tablet chips based on ARM. However, Intel did not provide benchmarks on graphics performance compared ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 4 and Qualcomm's Snapdragon.

"It's the first new Atom architecture in five years," Walker said. "It helps understand the camera, the tuning, the sensors, the whole platform battery life."

Tablets with Bay Trail will support 8-megapixel and 13-megapixel front and rear cameras, and also support voice commands to play back songs, get directions and to post updates on social networks. The tablets will support displays up to 2560 x 1600 pixels and have wireless display features to stream images directly to TV sets. The wireless multimedia streaming feature supports Miracast and Intel's Wi-Di networks.

Intel said that gaming will also be better with Bay Trail's improved graphics engine, which is based on the same technology used in Intel's recent third-generation Core processors named Ivy Bridge.

"The purchase drivers are things like battery life, sensors, cameras, and we increasingly see ... they are becoming more aware of what's inside," Walker said of would-be tablet buyers.

Bay Trail chips could also be used in laptops and have security features to protect devices and secure data. For example, Intel's identity theft features, which are also used in Intel laptop chips, can secure logins to websites.

The new chips are Atom Z3770 (2.4GHz clock speed, supports 4GB of memory), Z3770D (2.4GHz, 2GB memory), Z3740 (1.8GHz, 4GB memory) and Z3740D (1.8GHz, 2GB memory). The dual-core Android chips are Z3680 (2.0GHz, 1GB memory) and Z3680D (2.0GHz, 2GB memory). The chips support 2MB of cache.

Bay Trail and Intel's upcoming smartphone chip code-named Merrifield are based on an architecture called Silvermont. The architecture is also being extended to laptops with Pentium and Celeron chips, which previously ran on the faster Core processors.

There is also room for more performance or power efficiency on Bay Trail chips in the future. Depending on how the chips are adapted by manufacturers, Silvermont could provide up to three times improvement in performance or five times lower power consumption. Improving performance usually leads to lower battery life.

A block diagram of the quad-core Bay Trail chip design showed a new chip structure, more video acceleration technologies, new security feature and power-gating technologies. The chip is broken down into two blocks, with one block holding the main CPU, memory, graphics, display and audio interfaces. A switching interconnect connects the host block to a second block, which has the power management controller, storage interfaces, and I/O and audio controllers. Power management features are stretched across the entire chip.

The graphics processor supports Microsoft's DirectX 11, a graphics technology around which the latest PC and Xbox games are developed. The chip has hardware acceleration for video formats such as H.264, VC1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and VP8. Additionally, a technology called Intel Burst 2.0 can clock up or reduce CPU or GPU processor speed depending on the workload. With the technology a camera can also be shut down and its power can be rerouted to CPUs for demanding workloads.

The chips also use Intel's Display Power Savings Technology, which analyzes and reduces power consumption based on the images being pushed to the display.

"I can control the backlight of the display depending on the content and what the machine is trying to do," Walker said.

The Bay Trail chips will be made using Intel's 22-nanometer manufacturing process, which also brings power savings and improved performance. The tri-gate technology places transistors on top of each other in a 3D structure, instead of horizontally, which was the case with older chips. Intel's manufacturing technologies are considered the best in the industry, which the company claims will help it stay ahead of ARM. Foundries making ARM-based chips are still at the 28-nanometer process and do not have 3D transistor technology.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com


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