Is Intel’s Broadwell-Y processor a threat to ARM?

December 23, 2013
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Intel processorMore details are starting to emerge about Intel’s next line of processors. Code named Broadwell, the processors, which are likely to be released in the second half of 2014, are shrunk down versions of Intel’s current Haswell range. Like Haswell, the Broadwell range will come in several types including the Broadwell-D for desktops, the Broadwell-U for Ultrabooks and, of most interest to us, the Broadwell-Y for tablets.

Intel uses what it calls a tick-tock development process. In one cycle the company releases a new architecture with new designs and new features (this is the tick) and then during the next cycle it shrinks down the current devices using new manufacturing processes (the tock). Broadwell is a Haswell “tock” that will be manufactured using a 14nm process down from Haswell’s 22mn.

Intel is enjoying some success in the tablet space with companies like Asus and Samsung both offering tablets with its processors.

The result is that Intel is able dramatically reduce the energy consumption of its processors and the Broadwell-Y is thought to have a TDP of 4.5 Watts. It will also support configurable TDP (cTDP), that can go as low as 3.5 Watts and will have scenario design power (SDP) of 2.8 Watts.

Unfortunately TDP (and its friends like SDP) is a measure of the amount of heat the processor will give off while running. It can’t tell us the power efficiency of the processor, but it does show that the Broadwell-Y is designed for fanless implementations with an eye on low power consumption. It is thought that Broadwell-Y processors will have two 64-bit cores (dual-core), use Intel’s GT2 GPU and support up to 8GB of memory.

The question is therefore, is Intel’s Broadwell-Y processor a threat to ARM? Unfortunately the answer is complex. In the smartphone market, which is where ARM has it’s most success, the Broadwell-Y is no threat. The current range of processors from the likes of Qualcomm are already quad-core and have a lower TDP than the Broadwell-Y. MediaTek has released its octa-core processor and all the big names are working on ARMv8 64-bit processors which should ship before Broadwell. Of course the performance of the Broadwell-Y isn’t yet known but it is unlikely that it will find its way into smartphones.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1

For tablets the Broadwell-Y will certainly be an attractive option for high-end devices. Most likely the next generation of the Surface Pro (the Surface Pro 3?) will use a Broadwell processor, either a -U type as in the current Surface Pro 2 or possibly the -Y type which would allow Microsoft to make its tablet thinner. Intel is enjoying some success in the tablet space with companies like Asus and Samsung both offering tablets with its processors. If the Broadwell-Y performs well in terms of computing power and energy usage then more manufacturers could start to offer Intel powered tablets. However it is worth noting that at the moment these Intel powered Android tablets use Atom processors which are a very different, and separate, range from the Haswell/Broadwell series.

For smartphones and tablets it is ARM who has the dominant position with Intel trying to gain ground. But there is one area where Intel is still very much king and ARM would like to make an impact, that is in the server business.

With the advent of the 64-bit ARMv8 architecture and AMD’s plans to release it Hierofalcon 64-bit ARM-based SoC in the same time frame as Intel’s Broadwell, ARM is gunning for the server room. In the server room every Watt counts in terms of electricity bills, cooling requirements and ecological impact. The use of processors with lower TDPs could reduce the total cost of ownership per server. This makes ARM an interesting prospect for servers. With support for operating systems like Linux already very well established, an ARM server becomes a drop in replacement for an Intel server. But with Intel pushing the TDPs of the Broadwell series lower and lower, the likelihood of ARM making a massive entrance into the energy efficient server market is decreasing.

Intel, ARM and AMD all have big plans so it will be interesting to see what 2014 brings, especially for tablets.

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