Intel's tablet challenge: How Israel helped lay the foundations of its Samsung-led fightback

In just two years, Intel's Jerusalem team paved the way for the company's challenge in an industry dominated by ARM.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor
A Samsung smart TV with WIDI technology on display at Intel Israel's recent event
A Samsung smart TV with WIDI technology on display at Intel Israel's recent event. Image: Intel

Intel, something of a latecomer to the new world of mobile devices, has been playing catch-up with ARM, Nvidia and others in the battle for chip space on tablets. Israel, a major tech development centre for Intel, has been instrumental in the company's catch-up efforts, with Israeli teams producing its system-on-a-chip (SoC) chipsets, combined Bluetooth-and-Wi-Fi chips, connectivity systems (in the form of Thunderbolt), and more.

The fruits of its labours are now beginning to show. Samsung recently introduced its Galaxy Tab 3 tablets, all of which use Intel's Clover Trail+ line of SoC processors — developed by teams led by Intel in Jerusalem. And while many devices (including those made by Apple, Qualcomm, and many others) have "Israel Inside" technology, the development of Cloverview SoC's had some unique aspects, according to Aviad Hevrony, the front end design manager for Intel Israel's Cloverview team.

In an interview, Hevrony and senior members of his 100-plus Cloverview team discussed one of the biggest engineering challenges of their career: developing a chip that would allow Samsung's devices to run both Android and Windows, while supporting low power consumption and light form factors.

Intel Israel has been working on SoC systems for over four years, first developing them for netbooks, a market that was quickly eclipsed by tablets, said Hevrony. "After the introduction of the iPad it was clear where the industry was going, so we began trying to develop our own SoC technology for tablets." The Israel team led the effort, with major assists from Intel teams in Bangalore in India, and Austin and Folsom in the US.

Android's share of the tablet market has been ramping up of late, and looks set to overtake iOS's share in the near future, but that hasn't helped Intel much, as the big winners of that change have been (mostly) ARM and others who supply the chips for popular Android tablets (actually, ARM is still "winning," since Apple uses its chips for iPads as well). But Intel, along with Samsung and other companies, are betting that the public is going to go for a new breed of device — two in one devices, which be switched between tablet and laptop mode, running both Android (when separated from the keyboard/base) and Windows 8 Pro (when attached).

Backwards compatibility

One thing Microsoft was determined to avoid in this new generation of devices was the very limited compatibility of its Windows RT devices (they do not support a slew of Windows offerings, such as Storage Spaces, Windows Media Player, BitLocker, and others). This lack of compatibility is considered one of the main reasons for the lacklustre reviews and sales of the devices (including the Surface). Unlike ARM-powered RT devices, the Intel-inside Windows 8 two-in-one devices were developed to be backwards-compatible with legacy peripherals and software. And ensuring that compatibility was a formidable challenge, Hevrony said.

Yoav Hochberg shows off an Intel Inside smartphone
Yoav Hochberg shows off an Intel Inside smartphone. Image: Intel

"Our team had to develop a fast and low-power SoC, with two years from start to final design, and ensure full Windows compatibility," he said.

That includes even seldom-seen use cases, such as using USB headphones that connect to a USB hub, connected to a port on the device — an unlikely use case, considering that the devices sport not only a standard 3.5mm audio jack, but includes Bluetooth capability to allow users to listen to music from their device wirelessly. "If it has the Windows symbol on it, you have to support all peripherals," said Alex Gruzman, the Cloverview team's head of infrastructure and design automation.

Is this the beginning of an extended Intel-Samsung challenge to Apple? "As an engineer, I of course can't comment on that, but as the new tablets are a flagship product for Samsung, it seems to me that this was an important decision for them," Hevrony said.

But the Samsung two-in-one devices are far from the beginning and end of the new Intel-Samsung love affair. On stage at a recent Intel Israel event —  a local version of the presentation Intel put on at Computex 2013 earlier in June — there were other Samsung devices with Intel Inside, such as the company's new line of smart TVs. Yoav Hochbeg, director of strategic planning for Intel Haifa's microprocessor group, presented several Samsung TVs that includes Intel Wireless Display (WIDI) technology, which lets users wirelessly display the content on their device on a TV set, developed in Israel.

The Samsung opportunity

Samsung seems to offer the best opportunity to unseat Apple as the biggest seller of tablets and related devices (whether a two-in-one, or a phablet, the combination phone and tablet design that Intel has also been pushing). But Cloverview is just the beginning.

Later this year, the first Bay Trail tablets and devices will hit the market. With the Bay Trail devices set to premiere at the end of 2013 (as per current schedule), Atom CPUs will have finally grown up, now delivering double the CPU and triple the GPU of Cloverview devices, on the 22nm trigate quad-core processing Silvermont architecture — a lighter, faster, and more energy-saving SoC, Hochberg said, using as little as 6W of power.

"A little bit more and we can go fanless," Hochberg said — with a reference design that can support a teraflop machine, using next to no power and supporting things like gesture technology, voice identification, Iris graphics, and more already on the drawing board.

Power and performance are nice, but if you combine that with a low price, and you can attract buyers' attention. The Bay Trail devices will range from $199 to $899, depending on configuration, vendor, and so on. The lower prices are due to improvements in power management, manufacturing efficiency, scaling, and other factors, Hochberg said. "The myth than Intel is too expensive is rapidly evaporating."

Intel hasn't been exactly secretive about its plans, and as the number two (or three or four) in the tablet chip industry, it's had to try harder to get ahead. There's no doubt that its competitors are fast on the drawing board, developing their own new killer chips and platforms to match Intel's offerings.

And as always, competition is good for the consumer, with lower prices and more choice. If Samsung has really decided to use Intel's technology to develop a line of products aimed at unseating Apple as the number one device maker, the company certainly has plenty of resources to draw on. With the advances planned for just a few months from now, it seems pretty likely Samsung will adopt more of Intel's technology into more of its devices, as it seeks to steal market share out from under Apple.

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