Developing a CPU is a complex business and chip makers like ARM and Intel plan years ahead while trying to beat the competition. In the area of low-power processors for tablets and smartphones,Intel’s main rival is ARM, and so far ARM has been leading the way. Intel got into the low-power chip business about four years ago and although it has had some success with netbooks, the tablet and smartphone markets have remained elusive.
This isn’t to say that Intel has not tried or has given up. There are some Intel-based smartphones like the San Diego from Orange, the ZTE Grand X IN which is to be sold across Europe beginning in September or the yet unveiled Intel based phone from Motorola. But Intel will need to do much, much more. To this end the chip giant is planning to release a new range of Atom chips, including quad core variants (which it currently doesn’t have) at the end of 2013 with more models coming in 2014.
Known as Bay Trail, the new range of Atom CPUs will support out-of-order execution, something that the Atom chips haven’t supported until now, but which has been available in some ARM chips for several years. The problem is that out-of-order execution uses up valuable die space with the additional transistors needed to implement it. This in turn increases the running temperature and power consumption. Some of these problems will be resolved by the use of the new 22nm manufacturing process.
The new chips will have speeds ranging from 1.2 GHz to 2.4 GHz, come in single, dual, and quad core models, and support up to 8GB of memory at 1066MHz or 1333MHz DDR3 (current Atom chips have maximum of 1066MHz). Also, unlike previous generations of Atom chips, the Bay Trail line up will support 64-bit instructions. There will also be native support for USB 3.0 and SATA 2.0.
Maybe the biggest change is on the GPU side of things. The system-on-a-chip (SoC) variants (which have both a CPU and a GPU) will use the same graphics technology as the current Ivy Bridge HD 4000 and HD 2500 GPUs, but with only 4 execution units. In terms of hardware acceleration for video, the new chips will decode H.264, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG 4, and VC1/WMV9 video.
With the advent of Windows 8, Intel will want to make sure that consumers are buying Intel based tablets running the full version of Windows 8 rather than the RT version which runs on ARM and is missing the traditional desktop mode.
Besides Windows 8 tablets and Android devices, the new range will also find its way into netbooks, laptops and low power consumption servers. While the embedded versions will be used in applications such as digital signage, industrial equipment, or in-car systems.
The question is, will this all be too little, too late?