Intel rewrites 'inadequate' roadmap, 'reinvents' PC
Meet Airmont, a 14nm Atom SoC
Intel has rewritten its product roadmap to drastically cut the power targets for its notebook processors and to expand those targets for its mobile-device processors.
"We've decided, looking forward, that our roadmap was inadequate, and that we need to change the center point," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said during his keynote presentation on Tuesday at his company's Investor Meeting 2011.
In his 37 years at the company, Otellini said, Intel had made such a fundamental shift only three times. Those first of those three shifts, Otellini said, were the Pentium in 1995, which introduced multimedia capabilities to the PC. The second was the low-power, mobile Centrino and its Banias platform in 2003.
The third shift, according to Otellini, will be embodied by Intel's 22-nanometer Ivy Bridge and Haswell microarchitectures in 2012 and 2013. "The shift that we're making today is as fundamental," he said. "We are aiming our center point for all our design activities from sort of the 35, 40 watt midpoint we have today in the notebooks that most of us use. We're shifting that down substantially to 15 or so watts."
He hastened to assure his audience that Intel would still build chips that scaled up the dynamic range for other markets, such as PCs and servers – "obviously," he said – "but the centerpoint is increasingly going to be about ultramobility."
The revised design-power targets will include system-on-chip Atoms, as well. Those targets will be scaled both up and down to range from sub–one watt to under 10 watts.
Intel's new power-design targets: lower for notebooks, broader for SoCs
"The net result of this," Otellini said, indulging in a bit of hyperbole, "is that we will be able to deliver one single architecture, one common instruction set, one set of platform capabilities backed by software, that scale from the milliwatt to the megawatt.
"I don't think anyone else on earth is even thinking about this, and this will be implemented over the next several years."
Turning his attention to the now SoC-forever Atom, Otellini promised. "Over the next 36 months you'll see us bring to market Atom-based chips for a whole variety of tablets and phones and embedded machines and netbooks and so forth that essentially will move at twice the rate of Moore's Law.
"We'll deliver on 32nm, then on 22nm, and 14nm inside of that 36-month window." That 32nm part had been announced back in 2009, and the 22nm Silvermont was leaked last week, but the 14nm Airmont is newly revealed.
Fourteen-nanometer Atom SoCs will appear in 2014 under the code name of Airmont
Moving back to the notebook market, Otellini focused on what he called "perhaps the most exciting thing we'll be talking about today ... redefining the consumer PC experience."
Displaying a slide of a thinner-than-a-MacBook-Air notebook, he said: "This is the kind of device we expect people to be carrying around in the next 24 months or so."
Your future notebook PC, redefined and reinvented by Intel's presentation-slide designers
This sliver of a notebook, in Otellini's keynote-traditional purple prose, "is not just a PC. It's about reinventing the PC."
His list of features for this svelte reinvention include better performance than any laptop available today, all-day battery life, always-on connectivity, "best-in-class" graphics, increased security, multiple-operating-system support and inter-device communication, a touch-enabled interface, and instant-on operation – all at "mainstream price points," he promised.
"This is not about evolving the PC, this is about reinventing the PC," Otellini reiterated, "making it much more of a consumer electronics–like device." ®
Every keynote presentation must include at least one over-the-top statistic on at least one over-the-top slide, and Otellini did not disappoint:
Are you, dear reader, making good use of your allotted 10 billion transistors?
Even the Intel CEO himself was bemused. "This is the first, I think, and probably the only time that you're ever going to see the number 'quintillion' used on a slide," he said. ®
Now, does anybody still believe they're not frightened of ARM (and ARM licensees)?
"Twice the rate of Moore's Law"?
Still won't keep up with the resource demand in new Windows releases...
The words Intel and milliwatts...
In the same article...
Are they mad?
Intel had ARM. They won it in an IP spat with Digital. It was the Digital StrongARM, and was way ahead of it's time. Used it and it was unbelievable what we could do with it for so little power (although the software boys had a problem when they tried to do everything floating point!)
Then Intel decided that it needed changing. A lot of the Digital people left, the StongARM morphed into something much bigger and power hungry (and too expensive), and then Intel spun it out into what is now Marvel because they wanted something that was still a 8086 at heart.
I think Marvel has managed to make from ARM what Intel couldn't, and I would be very surprised if Intel manage to come up with something that can compete with ARM in terms of performance/watt.
>ARM is not a processor
Where have you been during the smart phone revolution? Things like Android phones, iPads, etc. have shown that whilst an ARM might not be the fastest chip out there it's certainly plenty fast enough for browsing, email and some simple amusements which is all that most people want to do. The operative word there is 'most'. It shows where the majority of the market is. It shows where the money is to be made. Companies are interested in making money, end of. Any bragging rights over having the fastest CPU are merely secondary to the goal of making money.
So clearly compute speed is not as big a marketing advantage as all that. The features that allow one product to distinguish itself from others is power consumption and size. And that's where ARM SoCs comes in streets ahead of Intel.
Intel at last seem to have realised this and have been caught on the hop by the various ARM SoC manufacturers and decisions by Microsoft and Apple to target ARM instead of / as well as Intel. So they're responding with their own x86 SoC plans, and will rely on their advantage in silicon processing to be competitive. And they may become very competitive, but only whilst everyone else works out how to match 22nm and 14nm.
It's a mighty big task for Intel. They have to completely re-invent how to implement an x86 core, re-imagine memory and peripheral buses, choose a set of peripherals to put on the SoC die, the lot. There's not really anything about current Intel chips that can survive if they're to approach the power levels of ARM SoCs.
Also a lot of the perceived performance of an ARM SoC actually comes from the little hardware accelerators that are on board for video and audio codecs, etc. There's a lot of established software out there to use all these little extras, and the pressure to re-use those accelerators on an x86 SoC must be quite high. So there's a risk that an x86 SoC will be little more than clones of existing ARM SoCs except for swapping the 32,000ish transistors of the ARM core for the millions needed for an x86.
And there in lies the trouble; the core. The x86 instruction set has all sorts of old fashioned modes and complexity. To make x86 half decent in terms of performance Intel have relied on complicated pipelines, large caches, etc. These are things that ARMs can get away with not having, at least to a large extent. So can Intel simplify an x86 core so as to be able to make the necessary power savings whilst retaining enough of the performance?
The 8086 had 20,000ish active transistors, but was only 16bit and lacks all of the things we're accustomed to in 32bit x86 modernity. Yet Intel have to squeeze something approaching today's x86 into little more than the transistor count for an 8086! I don't think that they can do that without changing the instruction set, and then it won't be x86 anymore. They'll have to gut the instruction set of things like SSE anyway and rely on hardware accelerators instead, just like ARM SoCs. If Intel's squeezing is unsuccessful and they still need a few million transistors then as soon as someone does a 14nm ARM SoC Intel are left with a more expensive and power hungry product.
The scary thing for Intel is that the data centre operators are waking up to their need to cut power bills too. For the big operators the biggest bill is power. So they should be asking themselves how many data center applications actually need large amounts of compute power per user? Hardly any. Clearly there's another way to slice the data centre workload beyond massive virtualisation. If some clever operator shows a power saving by having lots of ARMs instead of a few big x86 chips, that could be game over for Intel in the server market.
In a way it's a shame. Compute performance for the masses is increasingly being delivered by fixed task hardware accelerators. Those few of us (e.g. serious PC gamers, the supercomputer crowd, etc) who do actually care about high speed single thread general purpose compute performance may become increasingly neglected. It's too small a niche for anyone to spend the billions needed for the next chip.