IDF 2012: Intel sticks with Ultrabook goals, targets low-power Haswell at convertibles

Despite the sluggish PC market Intel isn't backing down from its lofty goals for Ultrabooks because it anticipates a fast ramp of Windows 8 PCs, including lots of clamshells and convertibles with touchscreens. And it promises the upcoming Haswell processors will usher in a new era of innovation.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Less than a week after Intel warned that the PC market was sluggish, Kirk Skaugen, a vice president and General Manager of the PC Client Group, conceded that the industry is facing a tough economic environment. But he said that Intel invests through these downturns and ends up with more competitive products--and more competitive experiences-exiting these downturns.

In an IDF session for the media today, Skaugen talked about what this new area of computing--based on the Intel's upcoming Haswell microarchitecture--will look like. "There will be more innovation in the next 12 to 18 months than we've seen in the last decade," he said. And he said despite the slow year, Intel isn’t backing down from its Ultrabook goal--40 percent of all consumer laptops by the end of this year--because it expects a "fast ramp" of Windows 8 during the holidays.

When Intel first announced the Ultrabook, in June 2011, it had about 21 designs. When it shifted to 3rd-generation Ivy Bridge chips earlier this year, that number had grown to more than 40 designs, he said. Around the time Windows 8 launches, Intel says it will have more than 70 Ultrabooks designs--including more than 40 with touchscreens. He also said Intel has been making progress on pushing down prices, noting that Dell is now selling $599 Ultrabooks with 3rd-generation Core processors, though touchscreens will carry about a $100 price premium. With the launch of Haswell, in 2013, Intel expects the number of Ultrabooks to grow to more than 140 designs.

Haswell is the first Intel chip designed from the ground up for Ultrabooks. At the low-end, Intel has the Atom processor, which uses about 2 watts. At the opposite extreme are the high-performance Core processors for larger laptops, which will continue to be rated at 35 watts or more, but will deliver more performance and features. But the big changes are happening in between with the Haswell microarchitecture.

First, the 17-watt Ivy Bridge processors used in current Ultrabooks will be replaced by 15-watt Haswell processors that Intel says will deliver the same or better performance. For the first time, Intel will also put the accompanying Platform Controller Hub (PCH) in the same package with the CPU so that it uses less board area. More significant, Intel will have a new Haswell chips, rated at about 10 watts, targeted specifically at convertibles (IDF 2012: Has the convertible PC's time finally come?). Customers will be able to build convertibles that are thinner, lighter, quieter and have longer battery life, but can still "burst" to performance levels above what Atom or other mobile processors can deliver to provide a "full PC experience." Interestingly, Skaugen sad Intel hasn’t yet decide whether the 10-watt Haswells will be called Core or will use some new brand. Haswell will also be the first mobile processor family to have multiple levels of graphics performance based on different numbers of execution engines to cover a wide range of performance levels (desktop chips already have two different levels of graphics).

Intel has been able to lower the power because of the company's manufacturing process technology and its processor design. Skaugen said that Intel has gotten better results than expected out of both. He confirmed that the first Haswell processors would arrive in the first half of 2013.

The Ultrabook convertible is Intel's answer for a complex world where laptops are colliding with smartphones and tablets. Nearly every major PC vendor in the world--Skaugen cited Sony, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, Asus, Samsung and HP--will be announcing Ultrabook convertibles. From detachables to displays that spin, swivel or flip, there is a lot of experimentation with form factors. In particular, he highlighted the Dell XPS Duo, Lenovo Yoga, Toshiba Satellite U925t and Asus Taichi prototype with dual displays. The Satellite U925t slider is also one of the first systems to have NFC and the tap-and-go technology with MasterCard's PayPass system. Skaugen said that Intel anthropologists gave users different form factors--with and without touch--to use for 60 days and, based on this, 44 percent of them said they wanted to buy a convertible. The rest were split between standard clamshell Ultrabooks (31 percent) and tablets (22 percent).

Although, the 4th-generation Core processor will enable thinner and lighter systems (at one point Skaugen held up NEC's LaVie Ultrabook, which has a Core i7 processor and weighs less than 2 pounds) Intel is pushing the broader features of the platform including:

  • Improved performance
  • Next-generation graphics--Support for more displays, DirectX 11
  • Touch input and voice recognition
  • Facial recognition and augmented reality
  • Double the battery life
  • Always Fresh Data--Intel's Smart Connect and Microsoft's Connected Standby
  • NFC--such as in Toshiba's
  • Many more security features--anti-theft technology, identity protection
  • Convertible designs
  • Support for high-resolution displays

To get developers working on these features, Intel announced a new hardware developer platform, a 17mm Ultrabook, code-named Harris Beach, that it plans to deliver to thousands of developers.

Skaugen also provided some more details on some of the innovations mentioned in the morning's keynote including touchscreens, better battery life and new ways of controlling PCs with voice and gestures. He said that more Ultrabooks with touchscreens will be launching in the next several months, with the arrival of Windows 8, than exist in the market today and talked about Intel's work to expand manufacturing, first announced at Computex in June. The second innovation was battery life--Intel is promising that Haswell-based Ultrabooks will offer nearly double the battery life of the current Ivy Bridge systems. Intel is also working with IDT, BYD, Compal and others to develop technology to wirelessly charge smartphones and peripherals from an Ultrabook or all-in-one PC.

Two things are happening in voice. The first is the Nuance's Dragon Assistant, which was featured in Dadi Perlmutter's keynote earlier in the day. The software, available in beta in the fourth quarter, lets you use voice to perform Web searches, post to Twitter or Facebook, or call up music from your library. Dell will be the first OEM to use the software in its Ultrabooks, but it will also be available to other OEMs and developers. Intel announced a new developer kit, known as the Perceptual Computing SDK, designed to help developers build new apps that take advantage not only of voice, but also face recognition, finger-tracking and hand gestures, and 2D and 3D object tracking on Haswell Ultraboooks and convertibles. Skaugen also talked about Intel's work with Creative and SoftKinetic on 3D cameras and gesture control. He said the first Creative infrared, close-range 720p cameras will be available for $149 starting in early 2013. He demonstrated how these can be used in education apps and games.

He finished up by talking a bit about desktops. Though desktop PCs haven't been selling well overall, he said it's a "well-kept secret" that all-in-ones (AIOs) are still growing at a good clip as people move their PCs out from under the desk and put them in more prominent areas of the home. Intel is pitching the idea of Adaptive AIOs with detachable touchscreens or, in some cases with batteries, so the entire system can be moved around the home. He gave a demonstration of Sony's Vaio Tap 20, a flexible AIO which has a 20-inch touchscreen that folds flat so family members can use it together around a coffee table.

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