AMD and Intel shift to low power, converged devices

With tablets giving laptops a run for their money, low power and long battery life has become the focus. Over the next few weeks a new wave of tablets laptops, and especially convertibles, based on fresh AMD and Intel silicon will show how far they’ve come.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Longer battery life has been a focus for chipmakers since laptops began overtaking desktops about five years ago. Now tablets are giving laptops a run for their money, and low power and long battery life has become the focus. Over the next few weeks we should start to see a new wave of tablets, convertibles and laptops based on fresh AMD and Intel silicon that will show how far they’ve come.

Last week AMD announced three new mobile platforms all of which include low-power processors. The Elite Mobility platform (Temash) includes both dual-core (A4-1200 and A4-1250) and quad-core (A6-1450) processors and is designed to compete with Intel’s Clover Trail in what AMD calls “performance tablets” running Windows 8. Although it carries the A-Series brand, Temash actually replaces older C- and E-Series processors, which didn’t get much traction in tablets but are used in some budget laptops. The new chips are also designed to compete against Celeron and Pentium processors in this segment. The strategy is to offer better performance than the current Atom Z2760, but longer battery life and lower prices than the Core i3.

AMD Battery
Source: AMD

The Mainstream platform (Kabini) is based on the same low-power core, known as Jaguar, but it is designed for low-end and mainstream laptops. It includes E-Series dual-cores, designed to compete with Celeron, and A-Series quad-cores that go head-to-head with Pentium and Core i3 systems. These have faster CPU and GPU cores than Temash at the expense of slightly higher power. The strategy is to push quad-core processors down into budget laptops. Earlier this week AMD announced a server version of Kabini, the Opteron X-Series (Kyoto), which will compete with Intel’s Atom and upcoming ARM-based processors for micro-servers.

Finally AMD expanded its Richland mainstream platform with seven new chips, including some low-voltage versions designed for thinner and lighter laptops. These are based on an enhanced version of the Piledriver core already used in AMD’s mainstream platform; the new architecture (Kaveri) has been pushed back to sometime next year. The first Richland APUs, which AMD announced back in March, were all rated at 35 watts. The latest ones include dual-core A4 and A6 processors at 17 watts, a quad-core A8 at 19 watts, and a quad-core A10 at 19 watts—in addition to three new 35-watt chips. These are designed to compete directly with Intel’s Core i3 and i5 processors in ultrathin and mainstream laptops.

Taken together, these appear to be a big step forward for AMD’s mobile portfolio and should close the gap a little with Intel. The problem is that Intel is about to announce its own product refresh.

First up is the fourth-generation Core (Haswell) processor, which Intel will announce at Computex in Taiwan next week. Low power and long battery life has been a big focus of this design from the beginning. Last week Intel said that Haswell will deliver up to 50 percent better battery life than the current Core processors along with a 20x improvement in standby time. Some versions of Haswell could have power ratings as low as 7 watts. The processor is also expected to deliver a big boost in graphics performance—it has even rolled out a new brand name, Intel Iris, for the graphics. Intel will give a presentation on the Iris Pro version (GT3e), with DRAM in the package, at a chip conference in Japan the week after Computex. The Core line is designed for everything from desktops to Ultrabooks, though Intel also seems to be emphasizing convertibles more (what they are now calling “2-in-1 computing”).

Intel Battery
Source: Intel

Later this year Intel will replace its Clover Trail platform with Bay Trail, which will include the first quad-core Atom designed for tablets running either Windows 8 or Android. Bay Trail is one of several processor families based on the Silvermont architecture, which Intel announced earlier this month. Intel has said Silvermont, which is manufactured on a more advanced 22nm process, will require up to five times less power than the 2.0GHz Atom Z2580. Tablets using the Bay Trail platform should be available in time for the holidays.

These new chips should make AMD and Intel much more competitive with chip designers that rely on the ARM architecture, such as Qualcomm. Thinner laptops with longer battery life, touchscreens and Windows 8.1 should breathe a little life into the PC market. But whether it will be enough to establish a real x86 tablet market remains to be seen.

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