Intel's mobile roadmap: Ultrabooks, better Atoms

The kick-off of Computex this week has granted us a bounty of news as we accelerate out of the Memorial Day weekend, fully powered by barbecued meats and various casseroles.  Our man Geoff Gasior is on the ground there in Taipei, but he was too busy meeting with component makers to attend Intel EVP Sean Maloney's Computex opening keynote.  Somewhat unusually, that keynote was relatively high in actual news content this year, as Maloney granted us a peek at Intel's vision for consumer laptops and projected a very aggressive schedule for future Atom development.  If you've been wondering about Intel's strategy to counter the rise of ARM-based mobile devices, well, we now know quite a bit more about the shape of that plan.

First, Intel intends to enable, inspire, goad, and shame the major PC makers into building laptops that look something like a MacBook Air.  You can see the hand-holding-the-thin-device picture, ripped from the Apple playbook and filled with darker hues, in the presentation slide above.  The firm calls this new class of laptops "Ultrabooks" in a nod to that other category of laptop it created a few years back, the humble netbook.  Ultrabooks, of course, are "ultra," so they're not so humble.  Instead, they're expected to be thin, light, and "elegant," with "tablet-like features."  Intel plans to throw the full weight of the corporate determination it has nicknamed Moore's Law behind the Ultrabook concept in order to ensure its success. 

The first wave of Ultrabooks has already begun to crest with Asus' new UX-series systems. Intel believes today's Sandy Bridge processors will allow "thin, light, and beautiful designs that are less than 20mm (0.8 inch) thick" at prices below $1,000.  Such systems should be populating store shelves in time for Christmas shopping this year.

The next step will be Sandy's successor, the Ivy Bridge die shrink, based on 22-nm process technology with expected gains in performance and power efficiency.  Maloney said Ivy Bridge-based systems should be available in the first half of next year, giving us a broad but definite launch time-frame.  Interestingly, both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt were mentioned in the same breath alongside Ivy Bridge, a pretty big hint about what to expect on that front (that is: potentially uneasy coexistence).

After Ivy Bridge, in 2013, will come the next microarchitectural refresh in Intel's clockwork-inspired tick-tock development cadence: Haswell.  We know little about Haswell at present, but it appears the rumors are true about a major break with past laptop thermal envelopes.  In the Haswell generation, Intel is looking to drive the thermal design point (TDP) for mainstream laptops to half their current levels.  Obviously, such a change would make the thinner form factors of the Ultrabook concept much easier to achieve.

Maloney repeatedly cited an intriguing benefit for successive generations of Ultrabooks: improved responsiveness.  Perhaps he's just using a nice word for "faster," but we don't think so.  Responsiveness appears to be a key engineering goal at Intel these days, and yes, there's a difference between responsiveness and raw performance, as anyone who's experienced the same old hitches, hiccups, and waiting times on a Windows system based on the very latest CPU and storage tech can attest.  We think Intel is learning from its competition in the phone and tablet spaces and looking to deliver a better interactive user experience.  Stay tuned for more on this concept later.

Maloney also projected a much more ambitious development schedule for Intel's low-power Atom chips. That will include a trio of successive transitions to new process technology inside of three to four years, ending with the "Airmont" chip reaching process parity with future big-boy CPUs at 14 nanometers in 2014.

The first step there will be the Cedar Trail netbook platform at 32nm, which Intel expects to "enable more than 10 hours of battery life and weeks of standby." Cedar Trail systems may be both "ultra-thin" and "fanless," too.  Speaking of tablet-like features, this platform appears to be rife with them, including a fast-resume capability, the ability to receive updates during standby, and a cross-device synchronization scheme.

Cedar Trail is the netbook platform, but another entrant, dubbed "Medfield," will be targeted at smart phones and tablets.  Like Moorestown before it, only hopefully not, Medfield will be the honest-to-goodness first Atom to really crack the phone-and-tablet market, unless it isn't.  Intel believes Medfield will allow tablet designs weighing less than 1.5 pounds and under 9mm thick when it goes into production later this year.  One indication that may turn the tide: Intel showed Android 3.0 "Honeycomb," the tablet OS, running on Medfield.

Obviously, Intel is looking to press its advantage in process technology versus ARM-based competitors in the coming years.  The firm probably has a two-year lead over the rest of the industry as it moves to 22 nanometers, perhaps more once you factor in the transition to a new transistor structure.  That advantage alone may not be enough to counter ARM's considerable momentum, but it will undoubtedly make the contest more compelling, to say the least.

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