IDF 2013: From Quark to Xeon, Intel wants to be inside everything

We expected the new low-power Haswell chips and Bay Trail Atoms for tablets. But on the first day of its annual conference, Intel offered a few surprises too, including working 14nm Core processors and a new Quark chip family for tiny devices.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

In an odd bit of timing Intel’s annual conference began this morning on the same day that HP--still one of the world’s largest PC companies--was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The coincidence symbolizes that challenges facing Intel and its new CEO, Brian Krzanich, in a post-PC era. In his first keynote, Krzanich, addressed this head-on, arguing that Intel has the right technology and products to power everything from tiny wearable devices to massive supercomputers.

“Our strategy is very simple,” Krzanich said. “Our plan is to lead in every segment of computing--servers, PCs, tablets, phones and beyond. Segments that are still being developed such as the Internet of Things.”

While some of the products Intel announced--including low-power Haswell chips and Bay Trail Atom for tablets--were expected, there were few surprises as well. These included the first working laptop running on a 14nm “Broadwell” Core processor and a smartphone powered by a 22nm “Silvermont” Atom chip. Intel also announced a new Quark processor family, which is even smaller and uses less power than Atom, designed for wearable devices and the Internet of Things.

These new areas are important for Intel, but the PC remains the bulk of its business even as growth slows and new devices emerge. “The PC is in the process of reinventing itself,” Krzanich said. “There’s more innovation in the PC than I’ve ever seen before. It’s battery life, it’s form factor, it’s capabilities.”

Intel showed an HP system based on a Haswell Y processor and said that the chips in this product family will use as little as 4.5 watts of power. Note that Intel is referring here to typical tablet usage (what it calls Scenario Design Power or SDP); based on the standard TDP rating it uses for PC and server chips these new Haswells are rated at 11.5 watts. There are 10 Haswell Y processors--most of which are Core i3 and Core i5 chips Intel HD 4200 graphics--but there is also a 1.20GHz Pentium 3560Y at the low end and a 2.90HGz Core i7-4610Y at the high end. These Haswell Y processors are significant because they will enable thinner, fanless devices with the performance of Core-based laptops. Krzanich said there will be more of these types of devices “as we exit this year.”

The next step after Haswell is Broadwell, a shrink to 14nm process technology. To prove that Intel was on schedule, Krzanich showed what a working laptop running a Broadwell processor (more specifically, he showed it playing Angry Birds, though hopefully they’ll come up some more compelling use cases for all this power). Krzanich confirmed Broadwell will be shipping by the end of the year and available in systems in 2014.

Although Krzanich didn’t provide any details on Bay Trail—there’s a separate session on this tomorrow—he said that Intel’s chips were already showing up tablets, holding up a Lenovo tablet to prove the point. He said the ability for Intel’s customer to choose between Atom and Core, and between Android and Windows 8 would give the company an edge in tablets. “It’s not just one tablet,” he said adding that numerous tablets would be available at prices starting at under $100 this holiday season.

Intel has also been focused on the concept of a 2-in-1 device that works as both a laptop and a tablet. Krzanich said that by the end of this year there will be more than 60 Intel-based tablets in the market with prices starting at under $100. In a question-and-answer session after the keynote, Krzanich confirmed rumors that new Chromebooks shipping later this year will also use Intel silicon.

While it may be making progress on convertibles and tablets, Intel still has a lot to prove with smartphones. Krzanich said the smartphone he showed with a 22nm Merrifield Atom SoC will deliver 50 percent better performance and longer battery life than its current solutions such as the 32nm Medfield processor used in the Lenovo K800. (He later said that the 14nm Atoms would begin shipping at the end of 2014.)

Krzanich acknowledged that the lack of 4G LTE support had been holding the company back in smartphones. Intel recently began shipping a its XMM 7160 cellular baseband that supports LTE data and 3G voice, and it will add LTE voice by the end of this year. In addition, he said, a team of engineers in San Diego has been working on LTE-Advanced with carrier aggregation. Intel demonstrated how this can boost data bandwidth from 35Mbps to 70Mbps, and Krzanich said that by the time Intel ships its XMM 7260 with LTE-Advanced sometime in 2014 it will deliver peak bandwidth of 150Mbps.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the new Quark X1000 processor family. Krzanich said that wearable computing devices and Internet of Things have similar requirements—electronics that are low power, small and lightweight, always connected and secure. In comparison with Atom, the Quark processor is one-fifth the size and uses one-tenth the power. Quark is also “fully synthesizable” meaning that other companies can take the basic chip and customize it adding their own technology for specific tasks.

Intel showed some reference designs including a board for industrial applications and a consumer bracelet, designed to get hardware companies and developers working on Quark-based solutions, but Krzanich said Intel isn’t likely to get into the hardware business itself. In a follow-on session, Intel President Renee James talked about how Intel technology will be used in “integrated computing” to solve complex problems in areas such as smart cities and healthcare.

Many chip companies have similar strategies to expand into new applications. ARM’s low-power cores are already used in millions of microcontrollers and processors, many of which integrate technology from other companies. AMD is pursuing a semi-custom strategy and just announced a new line of embedded processors using both ARM and x86 cores. IBM’s latest Power processors, announced at the Hot Chips conference last month, has a new interconnect that will allow customers to add their own technology and the company recently announce it will license the architecture to other chipmakers to create customized chips.

Krzanich also touched on Intel’s latest server processors for datacenters. Last week the company He started with the datacenter. Last week Intel announced the Atom C2000 family, based on the Silvermont architecture and 22nm process technology. Keeping with the customization theme, there are 13 different C2000 chips tailored to different micro-server, storage and networking workloads. At IDF, Intel announced its latest Xeon E5 v2 processor for mainstream servers.

In a later session, Diane Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, provided details on the E5-2600 v2 family code named Ivy Bridge-EP.” There are 21 new E5 processors in the line including 18 E5-2600 v2 chips, ranging in price from $202 to $2,614, and three single-socket E5-1600 v2s for workstations ranging in price from $294 to $1,080.

Based on Intel’s 22nm process technology, the E5 v2 has up to 12 cores and more cache than the current Xeon E5s at the same or lower power. Intel is claiming up to 50 percent better performance or 45 percent better energy efficiency than the current Xeon E5 processors. The E5 v2 is designed to cover everything from workstations (Apple’s redesigned Mac Pro, for example) to supercomputers such as China’s MilkyWay-2, currently the fastest computer system in the world.

Bryant and some of Intel’s customers talked about how the E5 v2 will be used not only in servers, but also in storage and networking applications to replace proprietary, fixed-function hardware.

Rather than a threat, the post-PC era is an opportunity for Intel, Krzanich concluded. “The landscape of computing has never been bigger,” he said. “We showed you everything from the biggest server with E5 to the smallest SoC Intel has ever built with Quark.” The strategy makes sense--and there is no denying that Intel has the best manufacturing technology to put behind it--but the company will need to back it up with some wins, most notably in tablets and smartphones that consumers actually want to buy.

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