What we think we know now about Windows 8 on Intel SoC tablets

Microsoft still isn't talking about Windows 8 on Intel/AMD system-on-a-chip devices. But Intel has started to open up.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

"We just don't know."

That's come to be a common refrain offered by many of us Microsoft watchers when asked about many (most?) things having to do with Windows 8. Despite the fact the operating system is available in Consumer Preview form, and soon to be available as a near-final Release Candidate (or possibly "Release Preview"), there are still lots of unanswered questions.

And up until this week, "we just don't know" was even more true when it came to Windows 8 on Intel system-on-a-chip (SoC) tablets.

Microsoft officials said in January 2011 that Windows 8 would run on x86/x64, ARM and SoC designs from Intel and AMD. The test builds that have gone out have been for x86/x64. Supposedly some partners and select customers also should be getting ARM builds running on prototype hardware right about now. But on the Intel/AMD Soc front, we haven't heard or seen much of anything at all.

At an Intel Developer Forum event in China this week, however, there was a bit of news from Intel about vendor commitments to use the company's "Medfield" and "Clover Trail" chips. A Computerworld story quoted an Intel exec saying the company was working with 10 undisclosed vendors designing Windows 8 tablets using Intel chips. Intel's China Chairman reportedly said "you'll probably see many Intel-based tablets this year." But neither of these statements made clear whether he was talking both x86/x64 and SoC or just the lower-power SoC.

News.com narrowed things down with a report about specs for "Clover Trail" (Atom Z2760) SoC tablets. According to information from Intel, Windows 8 tablets running Clover Trail were offer battery life of more than nine hours (on paper, as News.com's Brooke Crothers points out); be under 1.5 pounds in weight and under 9mm in thickness.

These tablets also will offer backward-app compatibility, according to Intel -- which means, unlike the case with Windows 8 on ARM tablets -- existing third-party apps (and plug-ins) will be able to run on the Windows 8 Desktop, I'd assume. They also will be able to support domains, again, something that Windows 8 on ARM tablets are not expected to be able to do. And they'll offer business users encryption and manageability guarantees.

PCs and tablets running Windows 8 on x86/x64 offer all of these business-oriented features. But Microsoft officials have declined to say whether or not Intel/AMD SoC tablets would.

One industry watcher said he expected Intel SoC-based tablets running Windows 8 to have more in common with Windows 8 on x86/x64.

"The Intel SoCs are based on Atom, so, they are not that high performance, and, compared to ARM, will use more power," said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates. "AMD has a better story re on-chip graphics. But in general, I would expect the full x86 Win8 experience on tablets. I'm guessing the x86 tablets will be more like Win8 PCs, but with better power characteristics. Still, they may run hot compared to ARM-based offerings."

So it's looking more and more like Microsoft and its partners may position WOA tablets as "media"/consumption devices and Intel and AMD tablets, whether running x86/x64 or SoC processors, as the "no compromise" consumption/creation devices. This is just my interpretation here, since Microsoft officials are not commenting at this time on what's going on with Windows 8 on SoC, beyond what company execs have said on this topic in the Building Windows 8 blog and via a couple of interviews.

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