Silvermont: Intel's silver bullet for mobile?

Silvermont: Intel's silver bullet for mobile?

Summary: More than five years after Intel first announced Atom, the company has introduced the first top-to-bottom redesign of its low-power processor. With the Silvermont microarchitecture, does Intel finally have all the ingredients to challenge ARM in smartphones and tablets?

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Source: Intel

More than five years after Intel first announced Atom, the company has introduced the first top-to-bottom redesign of its low-power processor. The new Silvermont microarchitecture is designed for everything from tiny embedded devices to micro-servers, but Silvermont’s real target is clear: smartphones and tablets. Does Intel finally have all the ingredients to challenge ARM in mobile?

There is little doubt Intel has superior manufacturing technology. It is manufacturing processors with features as small as 22 nanometers while competitors rely on contract manufacturers, or foundries, that are currently using a 28nm process. Furthermore Intel has already shipped more than 100 million chips using 3D transistors, known as FinFETs. The rest of the industry won’t start cranking out chips with FinFETs until the end of 2014--three years after Intel started production. All other things being equal, better process technology results in chips that are faster, use less power and are cheaper to make. Intel aims to use this advantage to work its way into tablets and smartphones by speeding up the Atom roadmap with 22nm Silvermont this year followed by 14nm Airmont next year.

Great manufacturing helps, but you also need a competitive chip design. The current Atoms are based on the 32nm Saltwell microarchitecture, a derivative of the original 45nm Bonnell processors. Silvermont, however, is an entirely new design. Like the Core and Xeon processors, it uses out-of-order execution to speed up operation. The multi-core architecture and system fabric is based on up to four modules, each of which has two CPU cores and 1MB of shared cache. Interestingly Silvermont SoCs do not use Hyper-Threading--an acknowledgement that the number of physical cores has become a selling point in smartphones and tablets. Silvermont also supports new instructions and has better power management features.

The combination of better process technology and a new microarchitecture delivers three times more peak performance and five times lower power than the current Atom Z2580 (Cloverview), a 32nm Saltwell SoC with two cores and four threads running at up to 2.0GHz, according to Intel. The company also showed data comparing a Silvermont favorably (of course) to unnamed ARM-based dual- and quad-core chips for smartphones and tablets. One of the new features of Silvermont is the ability to dynamically share power not only among the CPU cores, but also between the CPU and graphics, depending on the workload. Silvermont SoCs can support a wide range of performance and power levels, which Intel says is a better solution than mixing and matching different types of cores like ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture or Nvidia’s fifth “battery-saver” core.

Until we actually see devices using Silvermont SoCs, it’s impossible to say how it will really stack up to ARM. The first ones, part of the Bay Trail platform, should be available in Windows 8 and Android tablets in time for the holidays. Intel said Bay Trail will also be used in entry-level laptops and desktops with “innovative form factors,” which primarily means less pricey convertibles. The Merrifield platform will be in production by the end of the year, but won’t show up in Android smartphones until the first half of 2014. The Silvermont microarchitecture will also be used in Avoton chips for micro-servers; Rangeley for routers, switches and security appliances; and an unannounced embedded processor for entertainment devices, perhaps including the set-top box for Intel’s upcoming TV service.

Even if Silvermont matches ARM on performance and power, it may not be enough. Smartphones will continue to be a tough sell. Last year ARM cores were used in 2.2 billion chips in smartphones (each handset contains multiple chips with ARM cores)--good for around 90 percent market share. Smartphone companies rely on the extensive ARM ecosystem and support to help them design products and launch them quickly. Apple and Samsung use their own chips, and others are used to working with ARM customers such as Qualcomm, MediaTek and Spreadtrum, so it will be tough for Intel to break in, especially without an integrated cellular baseband.

Tablets are more promising because that market is still in flux with new hardware and platforms emerging. Smaller, less expensive Android tablets are chipping away at the iPad’s market share. Windows 8 and Windows RT are off to a slow start in tablets, but Microsoft says the Windows Blue update will enable tablets and convertibles in a broader range of sizes and prices. Asus CEO Jerry Shen told The Wall Street Journal last week that he’s “very optimistic” about smaller Windows 8 tablets with prices as low as $300 available later this year. In tablets, Intel will have to contend not only with ARM quad-cores but also with AMD’s Temash APU, which is already in production. Still this might be the year Intel finally makes up some ground in tablets with Bay Trail.

The good news is that by the holiday season, rather than choosing between an iPad or a low-cost Android tablets, there should be a lot more to choose from in terms of design, price and platform.

Topics: Processors, Smartphones, Tablets

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31 comments
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  • Intel does not deserve to succeed in mobile

    Intel was selling Atom garbage from old designs and processes to unsuspecting customers for years.

    Grove's mantra "only the paranoid survive" has long been forgotten apparently. Intel got too lazy and greedy and deserves to fail in mobile. Only clearly superior price/performance over ARM will get my attention.
    D.T.Long
    • Deserve?

      That does not make sense. Nobody deserves anything. If new CPUs are good then they will sell. If new CPUs can beat ARMs then it would be great for Intel (and Microsoft too). That would mean the death of windows RT but who would cry really.
      paul2011
      • It does indeed make sense to thinking consumers

        Consumer loyalty should be earned. If a company consistently tries to provide good products and value to their customers, then customer loyalty during more difficult times is earned or deserved.

        Companies which merely tries to squeeze every $ they can out of each customer, selling shoddy or sub-par products when they can get away with it, do not deserve customer loyalty difficult times.

        Unfortunately for Intel, in mobile they fall into the latter category. The bar will (or at least should) then be significantly higher for the consumers' dollars.
        D.T.Long
        • Consumer loyalty is a ridiculous notion

          If Intel can make a better product, people should buy it. If they aren't, then people shouldn't. But buying or not based on some idea of loyalty to a company (believe me when I say no companies share your loyalty) is just … not the smartest idea.
          Michael Alan Goff
          • Ever heard of brand value?

            Where do you think brand value comes from?

            Consumer trust and loyalty perhaps?

            Why do you think companies spend so much time and money building and protecting their brand?

            Because consumers tend to stick with brands/products they trust perhaps?

            That is a form of consumer loyalty; hard to earn but easy to lose.

            Given Intel's Atom history, they have damaged their brand in my book. I have lost some of my trust in them. It will take time, effort and expense to win it back. Intel has to do BETTER than it otherwise would have to, which is pretty much what I said in my first post.

            Not the smartest post you ever made.
            D.T.Long
          • I think it's an element....

            But not the be all to intel.

            People buy samsung or lg or HTC or nexus... They don't buy it because it has the OEM's SoC, Qualcomms Snapdragon, Nvidea's Tegra...

            What intel are better at is marketing - look at budget desktops; there's no reason most of them aren't AMD... The OEM pays extra to put intel on the box because consumers know the name.

            So I think it is an element, but with components makers you can only trade on your name for so long - if you donおt deliver, you'll get caught out.

            We'll have to see with this. I definitely think there is room for intel in the tablet and high end smart phone market, just as there will soon be advantages to arm based SoCs in the home computing market.
            MarknWill
          • I agree

            But Intel was very prominent in the desktop/notebook market with their stickers on every product. Consumers knew they were buying Intel and trusted the product they bought in part due to those stickers.

            A lot of consumers were disappointed with their netbooks, which also had Intel stickers on them. That hurt the Intel brand in the compact/mobile sector.

            Intel stickers on tablets and smart phones will not help a lot at the present time, in part because consumers' disappointments with their netbooks.

            ARM on the other hand, while not as well known, does not have a tarnished mobile image.
            D.T.Long
          • I know plenty of people

            that were/are happy with their netbook with Atom processors. I had one myself, the only issue I had was related to graphics and how quickly they were rendered or in this case, not rendered. The form factor was great, I could do work on Word or Excel, remote desktop into work, manage servers and workstations etc.

            I finally sold mine to a lady I work with for her daughter after she broke her power outlet. I replaces it with an XPS 13 that is faster, better graphics but more importantly, lighter than that netbook was. Let the market decide, not some whiny reason about fairness and deserving to succeed.
            hoppmang
          • I guess that is why netbook sales tanked

            and you sold yours; because you/they were so happy with them

            It would help if your views were supported by the facts
            D.T.Long
          • Most consumers are idiots

            I repeat that people should buy GOOD products. If Silvermont is a good product, it should sell well. If it isn't, then it shouldn't. There isn't some sort of magic formula here, or anything.

            People -should- buy what's best regardless of who makes it. The fact that people don't doesn't mean they shouldn't.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • There are a LOT of tech idiots too .....

            and many of them are here obviously!

            Sigh..........

            Ever heard of information asymmetry? Apparently not.

            Most consumers do not have the time and knowledge to adequately research the products they buy, hence brand loyalty and trust are important, whether you understand it or not.

            I am tired of arguing with "stupid"

            Have nice day.
            D.T.Long
          • re: There are a LOT of tech idiots too .....

            "I am tired of arguing with "stupid""

            Well then, for goodness sake, get out from in front of the bathroom mirror!
            Sir Name
          • Sure sign of maturity (NOT)

            Hinting people are stupid for not thinking the way you do!
            "Shakes head"
            martin_js
          • No need for etiquette...

            ...when you already have all the answers. Eh, D.T.?

            Despite some signs of "marketing" IQ in your posts, you torpedo the message with the continued insistence on rude, ill-mannered behavior. Ah the joy of anonymity as a platform for demonstrating low social IQ.
            Nierteroth9
          • Re: If Silvermont is a good product, it should sell well

            A more appropriate sentence would be

            "If Silvermont is a good product, it will sell well"

            Nothing more, nothing less. A product is just as good as the value customers put in it and this is reflected in sales. You can sell a bad product claiming it is good and it should sell, but ultimately, at the end it will not.

            People do indeed buy what they think is good for them. What is good for you, may not be good for me.
            danbi
          • Buy what's best?

            How do we know what's best? A smartphone from a small manufacturer in India may be as good as a Samsung product, but how can we tell?
            chakr
          • The Atom brand

            I too believe, that it would be wise for Intel to let the Atom brand fade away. They need to name the new platform something different, especially because it will be now an out-of-order CPU.
            danbi
          • Company loyalty = good experience from a company

            Loyalty for the sake of loyalty is just silly, but loyalty to a company or product line because experience shows that the products do what they're designed for, reliably and at a reasonable cost, has simple logic behind it. I've driven Toyota cars since 1980 because I've found them to be totally reliable even when 23 years old, not because of some crazy unreasoning loyalty to the brand.
            As for Intel coming up with a competitor for ARM, if they can do it, well done Intel, although it has taken Intel over 25 years to develop a processor that stands a chance of matching ARM. I worked on the development of the first ARM-based desktop computer in 1987 (the Acorn Archimedes) which, when it was launched, was the fastest desktop computer in the world and it didn't have a processor fan because the ARM processor was so efficient it didn't get hot.
            When it comes to portable computing devices, the idea of needing a cooling fan is ludicrous - battery power is wasted producing heat because of poor processor design, then more battery power is needed to drive the fan to cool the processsor - sheer lunacy!
            At least with ARM based designs, we don't have cellphones with fans built in ;)
            JohnOfStony
        • You get what you pay for. If you want more performance...

          Get an iSeries processor. Nothing was shoddy about Atom it was just an ultra-low power chip but at the cost of low performance. Intel now has the technology to give both. It was a stop-gap to compete with ARM but allow staying with x86 software. Intel wasn't gypping folks. They never claimed desktop performance. It was a bit under-powered which is why the netbook sector all but died when tablets based on ARM because then you could have small light, long battery life and cheap too. With Silvermont I think Intel will do well in the mobile space.
          DevGuy_z
        • What the hell your mom or grandma...

          What the hell your mom or grandma... will know about Atom, AMR, Intel?? They will only buy something they like!!! Do you imagine your blond (pharmacy) sister arguing with Best Buy geek guy about the history of Intel's Atom processor or how nVidia wins over Voodoo 3Dfx video cards!!!?? Hahaha!!!
          albert81