Intel Bay Trail: Chipmaker doubles tablet performance as it takes fight to ARM

Summary:Intel today unveiled its new family of chips designed to challenge ARM in the tablet market - promising to deliver a two times performance boost on its earlier tablets and support a raft of new Windows 8 and Android tablets.

Chipmaker Intel today unveiled the hardware it hopes will help it establish a much-needed foothold in the burgeoning tablet market.

Getting more Intel chips inside tablets is increasingly important for Intel as sales of desktop and laptop PCs — a market Intel has dominated for decades — dwindle , while tablets are forecast to sell in ever larger numbers .

Intel is hoping to persuade tablet makers to swap out the ARM-based low power Risc chips that sit inside the majority of tablets today for the Intel Bay Trail platform - specifically its Atom Z3000 series of System on a Chips (SoCs).

The Z3000 is Intel's second recent attempt to break into the mainstream tablet market, after its earlier Atom SoCs – inside its Clover Trail and Clover Trail+ platforms - only made it into a relatively small number of tablets.

On the face of it the Z3000 series addresses some of the criticisms levelled at Clover Trail, primarily it's faster and allows tablets to run for longer off the same battery.

Annette Jump, research director in Gartner's worldwide consumer technology and markets team, said: "The biggest issue with Clover Trail was the performance, it was very slow on some of the tablets that vendors had used.

"The expectation is the performance is that Bay Trail's performance will be significantly better."

Performance

Compared to Intel-based tablets today Bay Trail tablets will perform better at general tasks like browsing the web - with two times the central processing performance – and specialised tasks like watching high definition video and playing games - with three times the graphics performance, according to Intel benchmarks.

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Image: Intel
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Image: Intel
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Image: Intel

More importantly for Intel's ambition to carve out part of the tablet market, Bay Trail tablets will outperform competing tablets running mid to high-end Arm-based SoCs. Bay Trail tablets outpace ARM-based platforms, such as Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 and 800 SoCs and Nvidia Tegra 3 and 4 chipsets, according to Intel benchmarks.

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Single-threaded and multi-threaded peak CPU performance estimates for compute intensive applications vs. ARM tablets. Image: Intel

However Intel's performance claims are comparing Bay Trail and ARM-based tablets on the basis of specific benchmarks chosen by Intel, as well as not including Android-based testing, so are not necessarily indicative of a general performance gap, according to ARM.

"Frankly we do not put any weight behind Intel's benchmarking when they use compilers that are specially tuned to deliver better benchmark results on the x86 architecture. If you use standard production tools for building the common operating systems and applications, the story is different," said an ARM spokesman.

A further point is that the first ARM-based processor based on the next generation, 64-bit v8 architecture - the Apple A7 found inside the iPhone 5S - will be out this month , and as new v8 ARM-based processors follow this may further diminish any performance gap between Intel and ARM-based mobile and tablet platforms.

Battery life is of key importance to any mobile device, and on this front Intel claims Z3000-based tablets with a 30 watt-hour battery can last for eight hours of video playback and three weeks in standby. Earlier benchmarks by Intel have claimed Bay Trail uses around five times less power for general computing tasks than its predecessors.

Price

Bay Trail SoCs are aimed at tablets and convertible laptop/tablets with screen sizes below priced at $599 or below and will ship in a range of tablets running Windows 8 and Android, ranging down to below $100 in price . The first of these tablets will ship during the Christmas holiday season this year. For more expensive tablets Intel has the higher priced Haswell processor, which Intel says should "deliver 2x scalability" beyond Bay Trail for "key productivity usages".

By targeting Bay Trail SoCs at cheaper, smaller tablets and the more powerful Intel Haswell Core processors at more demanding tablets and convertible PCs, Intel can pitch a processor at the right price and with the necessary performance for both the high and low-end tablet and PC market, said Gartner's Jump.

"Many of the vendors will be quite keen to integrate the new processors [Bay Trail] because that would allow them to reach lower price points on the tablet and they wouldn't get all the negative comments in terms of the performance."

The lower specced Bay Trail systems, the dual core Z3600 series will be used primarily for seven-inch Android tablets, while the higher end, quad-core Z3700 series will be used in both Windows and Android devices.

Another factor that held Clover Trail back from wider adoption was arguably Intel's failure to persuade more tablet makers to put the chip inside their flagship devices. Intel is promising it will rectify this with Bay Trail – saying the processor will be in "far more" Android and Windows 8 tablets "out of the gate", and is due to reveal who that will be today.

Supporting the Android OS, and not just Windows 8, is a smart move for Intel, said Jump, as it allow tablet makers to price Bay Trail tablets more competitively with competing tablets running rival chipsets.

"It is very clever, as many of the Android-based systems could be positioned at much more aggressive price points. The price premium with Windows OS for a smaller screen size is much higher and therefore increases the overall price to the end users," she said.

The specs

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Intel Bay Trail SKUs aimed at tablets and convertible PCs. Image: Intel

The Z3000 series ranges from SoCs with a top speed of 1.8GHz up to 2.4Ghz, is available in both dual and quad core configurations and with 1MB or 2MB of shared cache. Memory ranges from 1GB to 4GB depending on the processor.

While the clock speed of the processors is rated at up to 2.4GHz Intel says that processors will not be able to run at the maximum listed speeds indefinitely but rather will run be able to "burst" to these speeds for as long as they are operating below specified voltage, current and temperature limits.

The Z3000's graphics are improved over the previous generation Clover Trail+ SoCs. However the Bay Trail tablet platform features an Intel HD GPU from its Ivy Bridge generation of Core desktop processors, rather than the faster Intel Iris graphics chip found in its lastest generation of Core processors, known as Haswell. The Z3000's Intel HD integrated graphics card supports DX11, Open GL 3.0, has four execution units, with eight threads per unit, and can increase its clock speed to 667MHz for limited periods of time. There is full hardware acceleration of video decoding for popular codecs, including H.264, VC1, and MPEG-4/H.263.

The Bay Trail tablet platform supports displays with a resolution of up to 2560 by 1440 at 60Hz refresh rate via eDP 1.3 or DP 1.2 and can output to a 1080p display via HDMI 1.4. It can also drive two separate display, allowing for picture-in-picture or for two separate images to be shown on the tablet and an external display.

Built-in cameras should be able to capture 1080p video at 60 FPS, and also benefit from digital video stabilisation, burst mode, a "zero shutter lag" and "continuous capture" feature and low light noise reduction due to the built in image signal processor. Front-facing image sensors support up to 13 megapixels image capture and two megapixels on internal facing sensors;Video post-processing technology will also allow shaky or blurry video to be "corrected" while it is being played, according to Intel.

Although wireless connectivity wasn't spelled out, Intel recently demoed a Bay Trail-based tablet connecting via LTE using Intel's;XMM 7160 multimode celluar baseband chip.

The Z3000's performance and battery life improvements over current-gen Intel tablet processors is in part made possible by a number of fundamental architectural and design changes in Bay Trail from Intel's earlier SoCs. The Silvermont microarchitecture of Bay Trail's CPU cores features out of order instruction execution, which increases the amount of work the processor can do in each cycle, as well as introducing other optimisations. Intel has focused on improving the processors ability to run single threaded applications, as it says majority of applications today are single-threaded.

Bay Trail SoCs are also manufactured using a 22nm transistor process technology, compared to 32nm for current-gen Intel tablet SoCs, and is its first tablet platform to be made using Intel's 3D Tri-Gate transistors.

The Z3000 SoCs also feature a number of power management features – power can be shared between processor cores, the GPU, the camera and the display depending on usage, for instance allowing several CPU cores to run at a higher than base clock speed while the GPU is powered down, see below. Battery life is also boosted by Intel Display Power Saving Technology 6.0, which reduces the backlight but compensates for lost light by enhancing the on-screen image.

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Image: Intel

Despite Bay Trail tablet SoCs being built around a 64-bit processor core the platform will not be able to run a 64-bit version of Windows 8 when the first tablets are released this year. The omission will mean that the higher end systems with 4GB of memory will not be able to address and take full advantage of the entire 4GB, but only about 3.5GB. Intel said an update to Windows in the first quarter of 2014 will enable Z3000-based tablets to run the 64-bit version.

Memorywise Bay Trail SKUs supports both single and dual channel LPDDR3 at 1067 MHz, for higher performance tablets, and single channel DDR3L-RS 1333 at 1333MHz. The bandwidth to the memory bandwidth is almost two and a half times what Intel has on Clover Trail. Bay Trail gives you 6.4GBps and can go up to 17.1GB.

For storage the Z3000 SoC supports SDCard and eMMC, with test platforms shown running 64GB eMMC solid state storage. The platform also supports USB3 and USB2.

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Intel Bay Trail SoC diagram. Image: Intel

Topics: Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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