With the release of the Intel Z68 chipset behind us by several weeks, Intel spent the opening keynote at Computex 2011 creating quite a buzz in the mobility section of the computing world. Intel’s Executive Vice President Sean Maloney took the stage on Tuesday and announced what Intel is calling a completely new category of mobile computer, the “Ultrabook”. A term coined by Intel directly, the Ultrabook will “marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience, in a thin, light and elegant design.”
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Intel is so confident in this new segment of the market that will fall between the tablet and notebook that they are predicting that by the time we reach the end of 2012 it will represent 40% of Intel’s processor shipments. That is an incredibly bold claim considering how massive and how dominate Intel is in the processor field. Intel plans to reach this 40% goal by addressing the Ultrabook market in three phases, the first of which will begin with ultra-low-power versions of today’s Sandy Bridge processors. Using this technology Maloney says we will see notebooks less than 0.8 inches thin and for under $1,000.
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The new lower power Sandy Bridge offerings will be available this winter and were demonstrated as ASUS’ Chairman Jonney Shih revealed the UX21 Ultrabook.
“At ASUS, we are very much aligned with Intel’s vision of Ultrabook™,” said Shih. “Our customers are demanding an uncompromised computing experience in a lightweight, highly portable design that responds to their needs quickly. Transforming the PC into an ultra thin, ultra responsive device will change the way people interact with their PC.”
We already know about the follow up to Sandy Bridge known as Ivy Bridge and with that design Intel will be pushing even further into the low power, ultra thin form factor. Available in the first half of 2012, Ivy Bridge will “bring improved power efficiency, smart visual performance, increased responsiveness and enhanced security” and will be the first product available on the 22nm 3D transistor technology detailed earlier in May.
Finally, the third phase that Maloney detailed is the next-generation architecture known as Haswell, planned for 2013. While details on the architecture are sparse, Intel is making a bold claim of changing the thermal design targets of notebooks by HALF. If Intel is able to do this while continuing to grow the performance levels of the Intel Core architecture it will drastically change the way we think about computing is such tiny form factors.
The Atom of Change
The Intel Core architecture wasn’t the only product line of Intel’s to see major announcements during Maloney’s keynote. While Atom has continued to appear to be an afterthought for the company thus far, with the threat of ARM and ultra-low-power processors in the mobile markets, Intel is making a dramatic investment to catch up. Maloney committed to moving the Atom architecture from 32nm to 22nm and then to 14nm process technologies within three successive years. This would move the Atom CPU to a more advanced process than the Core series of parts; an inverse of what we see today. Intel claims that this accelerated transition will “result in significant reduction in transistor leakage, lower active power and an increase of transistor density to enable more powerful smartphones, tablets, and netbooks with more features and longer battery life.” Obviously if Intel wants to make inroads into the cell/tablet markets then they need this product shift to occur at this advanced speed.
The next-generation Atom processor build on 32nm process technology known as “Cedar Trail” is set to be released later this year and starts the move that Intel is hoping will take them to a position of dominance in the ultra-mobile form factors. This platform will offer some first-time features for Atom processors including Intel Rapid Start technology which provides fast resume, Intel Smart Connect Technology which enables an always updated experience even during standby, Intel Wireless Display and PC Synch, which let users wirelessly update and synchronize documents, content and media across multiple devices. With a goal of 10+ hours of battery life and “months” of standby, Cedar Trail is also going to support Windows, the Google Chrome OS and MeeGo. No word on Android though…
The Intel Medfield platform was also discussed at the keynote, the SoC design aimed at the mobile phone and tablet markets. Built on the same 32nm process as Cedar Trail, Medfield is obviously aimed at lower power and longer battery life targets and will deliver “rich media and gaming, and advanced imaging capabilities.” Maloney showed off a Medfield design that was using Google’s Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system for the very first time – hopefully this means we are in for a host of new options that will push the tablet form factor to different areas. This platform will “enable sub-9mm designs that weigh less than 1.5 pounds for tablet designs in market the first half of 2012.”
These two platforms, Intel’s Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge/Haswell Core architectures and the Atom line will be the catalyst for Intel’s new found, and newly committed, focus on low power computing as opposed to high performance computing. We are still eager to hear about the desktop variants of both Ivy Bridge and Haswell but based on Maloney’s keynote today it is hard to deny the simple truth that Intel is reacting to the competition from the collection of ARM and partners like NVIDIA, Qualcomm and more. Even the AMD Fusion products have been pushing the envelope more than Intel’s Atom product stack and Intel has obviously reorganized internally for the coming battle. And, as is usually the case, with the benefits of Intel’s own process technology and the company’s huge cash reserves, you would be hard pressed to find someone to bet against them in the long run.