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Performance claims: Silvermont versus the world

The combination of a relatively long and frequency-optimized pipeline, dynamic clocking flexibility, and very hospitable process tech apparently adds up to good things for Silvermont cores in silicon, because Intel is already making some strong performance claims. Above is a comparison versus an unnamed ARM big.LITTLE asymmetric core implementation. Intel expects Silvermont to deliver superior power-efficient performance across the whole range of operating conditions.

The slide above shows how Silvermont stacks up against the prior-gen Saltwell Atom core. Single-threaded, single-core performance is shown on the left. The combination of IPC increases, higher frequency, and other improvements has yielded a 2X gain in peak single-thread performance and a doubling of performance at the same power consumption level. Silvermont can deliver the same level of performance as the older core at "4.7X lower power," as well.

The charts on the right compare a dual-core, quad-threaded Saltwell implementation with a quad-core, quad-threaded Silvermont-based chip. Again, the gains are substantial, whether the comparison is at similar levels of power or performance.

Silvermont's true target, naturally, is the ARM-based competition. One point Intel wants to underscore in this context is that a dual-core Silvermont has the potential to outperform a quad-core ARM-based SoC in terms of peak performance and in terms of power consumption at comparable power levels. The three competitors aren't named here, but I expect SoCs from big names like Apple and Qualcomm are the basis for these results.

Here's a set of estimates matching up Silvermont against its likely ARM-based competitors in the tablet space. The comparisons are made at equivalent core counts, and the workload is SPECint rate_base2000. Although these are still just projections, you can see that Intel expects Silvermont to outperform its competition by some wide margins at a core power level of 1.5W while drawing much less power at peak performance levels.

On paper, then, Silvermont looks more than competitive at this early stage of the game. We'll have a better sense of how it matches up once we know more details about the SoCs based on it. If those products turn out to be as strong as Intel projects, then they will surely find some traction in the PC space. Bay Trail should do well in Windows-based tablets and in low-cost laptops and desktops, although it will be arriving with a similar incumbent already in the market in the form of AMD's quad-core Temash and Kabini SoCs.

The tougher question is whether Silvermont-based SoCs can make further inroads into smartphones and tablets based on the most popular touch-based mobile operating systems, like iOS and Android. The trouble here is that the ARM instruction set has become the standard in that space, a barrier to be overcome. ARM's practice of licensing its IP and letting customers integrate it as they choose may be even more of an obstacle, because it means firms like Apple and Samsung, who together own a huge proportion of the phone and tablet markets, can roll their own solutions. Intel appears to be fully capable of creating superior SoC technology. But how much better does that technology have to be in order to woo device makers away from their current freedom and into an x86 standard that now feels strangely proprietary by comparison? With Silvermont on deck and a tick-tock development cadence underway, Intel may soon be testing the limits of that equation.TR

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