Silvermont (Atom) and Haswell (Core) are great mobile-oriented microarchitectures, but will the OEMs make enough compelling designs in time for the holiday buying season?

android 2 1024x682 IDF SF 2013   The x86 Mobile Quandary starring Bay Trail and Haswell

Last year before CES, I made a prediction that 2013 will be the year that Intel catches up to the ARM competition. Then, I was specifically referring to Clovertrail+ Atom (smartphone oriented 32nm dual Saltwell cores), which turned out to be competitive performance wise but had garnered relatively few design wins. Some of these only started showing up recently in the form of Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 and Asus Fonepad, not exactly the kind of high profile halo models that grabs consumer and media attention.

Some of the FUD thrown around in technology circles were that x86 ISA  is “too bloated for mobile devices” from a die space and power perspective, and naysayers questioned the efficacy of the ARM binary translation for Android apps. Intel dispelled these myths with Clovertrail generally winning the benchmarks (including the synthetic ones) against its ARM counterparts, and even brought out some nifty sub-7W SDP Ivy Bridge designs in fanless tablet form factors.

Bay Trail 1 IDF SF 2013   The x86 Mobile Quandary starring Bay Trail and Haswell

Today, Intel is shipping products based on two new mobile-oriented microarchitectures based on their proven 22nm process – Haswell and Silvermont.

Haswell competes against… Ivy Bridge

Making its debut at Computex earlier this year, Haswell, albeit not so much progress on the CPU performance frontiers, did bring more advanced and fine-grained power saving technologies to the table and vastly improved graphics capabilities.

Within the Haswell mobile family, there are a variety of SKUs -

“M” – 37w dual cores, goes into the typical entry/business notebooks

“U” – Ultra low voltage 17/28w dual cores for Ultrabook class laptops

“QM” – 35/45w quad cores for performance laptops

“Y” – sub 10w dual cores for fanless tablet designs

“HQ” – 57w quad cores with Iris Pro HD5200 graphics, purportedly appearing in the next Apple MBP

In these segments, Intel primarily competes against its older products, with their only three-lettered x86 competitor operating in the low margin, budget netbook space (Kabini), and Trinity/Richland APUs failing to get any meaningful design wins due to a variety of reasons from poor perf/watt metrics to lack of OEM/ODM tooling support.

With the official launch of next-gen mobile Kaveri being pushed back deeper into 2014 and closer to 14nm Broadwell (which will have even more graphics potency and power savings), Intel is set to continue its overwhelming domination in the x86 Windows duopoly, as long as they maintain ruthless and timely execution.

Silvermont – Bay Trail Atom takes on ARMs

Described by some at Intel as having the same impact as Conroe (their Great Leap Forward in 2006), the new Silvermont microarchitecture is touted to have class-leading performance, with the all-important cost parity to their ARM counterparts in the price sensitive markets they are aiming for.

Here, the silicon varieties are even more diverse -

Bay Trail-T – Tablet oriented sub-5w quad-cores

Bay Trail-M / Bay-Trail-D -Pentium/Celeron branded entry desktop and mobile products

Avoton / Rangeley – Microservers

Merrifield – Smartphones

Besides the impressive perf/watt improvement (almost ~3x) over the previous generation Saltwell powered Atoms, Bay Trail also integrates the same GPU block from Ivy Bridge for a sizable graphics capability upgrade (I did ask whether it can play Crysis – still not at playable framerates).

From the preliminary benchmarks that I’ve ran on Intel’s reference Windows and Android tablets during a special Bay Trail journalists briefing at Intel Santa Clara, the Z3770 (top-end tablet SKU) that was tested won’t arouse the typical performance hungry VR-Zone reader in the pants, but I was certainly left with the impression that it is perceptibly as good/better than any ARM SoC in media consumption/light gaming and has enough more horsepower to handle the occasional content creation/heavier gaming when called upon.

Let’s hope the rosy picture doesn’t change too much when the chips end up in the final OEM designs.