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Intel uncloaks micro-microchip assault with Quark SoCs

Daddy Silicon shows mobile cred: 'Look, we've got wearables!'

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IDF13 As ARM has come to rule mobile phones, tablets, and internet-of-things devices, the keynotes at the Intel Developer Forum have turned into glitzy, shock-and-awe affairs that see Daddy Silicon attempting to reassure the world that it, too, is into low-power and mobile. Tuesday's keynote was no different – but it contained at least one major surprise: a new processor line that, being smaller than Intel's Atom, is dubbed Quark.

To start, new CEO Brian Krzanich showed off a shelf heaving with "2-in-1s" – tablets with detachable keyboards, or clamshells with flip-or-twist displays – which Intel now believes are the future even as it continues to push its traditional clamshell Ultrabook vision on the world. They will come to market later this year, and some will cost as low as $400, he said.

Krzanich also showed off another shelf, one that appeared to be a slab short of buckling beneath the weight of numerous Android and Windows tablets running on Core and Atom processors, some of which he said will cost below $100 as early as this holiday season.

After that came the phones and the repeated references to Intel's mission to get into mobile devices. "Our plan is to lead in every segment of computing," Krzanich said. "We will go and put our leadership and our silicon and our technology into every segment of computing."

Following the phones was the internet-of-things discussion and the announcement of the Quark X1000 family of system-on-a-chip processors, which Krzanich called "Intel's smallest SoC ever." Each Quark chip consumes one tenth the power of an Atom chip, and is about one fifth the size, he said. That, optimistically, gives a Quark a thermal design power (TDP) of anywhere between 1.3W and 0.4W.

Customers will be allowed to add their own IP elements to Quark's compute cores, he said, through a series of "hooks" in the chip's architecture, and make such minor changes as small tweaks in the die's dimensions or voltages, although such major modifications as embedded DRAM on the die are not yet possible.

In the future, Quark-based designs might be fabbed by other chip-bakers, but for now, customers who modify their Quark chips will need to have them manufactured by Intel, Krzanich said.

"Over the last 20 years we've been architecting our factory and supply chain to be capable of this," he said. "You've seen us move into the foundry business over the last couple of years – that was to really prepare us for being a supplier in a foundry environment"

He also held up two reference-design "wearable devices" showing that Intel is not immune from the smartwatch craze that has been roiling up the tech industry for the last couple of years.

For Intel, the coming years will be critical as the company tries to step from the crumbling PC platform into the rising mobile device world. Tuesday's message is that its fabs are a-fabbin', and Intel is going to keep throwing money at mobile until stuff starts sticking. ®

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