Windows 8 tablets with Intel Clover Trail chips on the way
Think of a major PC maker. Odds are they’re launching a new tablet on or around October 26th. It will run Windows 8, and there’s a good chance it will have an Intel Atom Z760 “Clover Trail” processor.
Intel is holding an event in San Francisco today to show off many of the upcoming Clover Trail tablets, such as the Asus Vivo Tab, HP Envy X2, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, and Dell Latitude 10. About half will be convertible or transformer-style tablets, while the rest will be slates.
But the chip maker is also providing more details about the Atom Z2760 processor that will power these devices.
Intel is showing off tablets from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and ZTE today. They may have different memory, battery, and storage configurations, but they’ll all have the same Clover Trail processor which means that overall peformance should be similar on each device.
The Intel Atom Z2760 is a 32nm dual core processor with support for hyperthreading, which means it can run up to 4 parallel instruction threads at a time.
Intel’s new Atom chip is a 1.8 GHz processor with support for Intel Burst technology for on-demand performance. It supports up to 2GB of memory and includes a 533 MHz PowerVR graphics core.
The chip supports WiFi, 3G, 4G LTE, and NFC technologies and GPS, and can work with a range of sensors including accelerometer, compass, proximity, and thermal sensors.
Atom Z2760 chips will show up in devices that support HDMI 1.3 output work with primary cameras with up to 8MP as well as secondary cameras which can capture up to 2.1MP images.
The Intel Atom Z2760CPU is a close cousin to the Medfield chip used in smartphones. It has a TDP of just 2W and Intel expects most Clover Trail tablets to get up to 9 or 10 hours of battery life. Results may vary from model to model depending on battery configurations and other features.
Intel says that you should see that kind of battery life whether you’re surfing the web, watching videos, or performing other day-to-day activities. Clover Trail systems can run for weeks at a time if they’re in standby.
A low TDP doesn’t just mean longer battery life. It also means the chip doesn’t generate a lot of heat, and that lets device makers build tablets that are thin, light, and which don’t require noisy (and cumbersome) fans.
Clover Trail systems will be able to weigh 1.5 pounds or less and measure as little as a third of an inch thick.
It’s also the first chip from Intel to support the company’s new S0ix or “active idle” state. This is a new sort of sleep state reduces power consumption by 20 percent, while still allowing a computer to stay connected to the internet and poll for incoming email messages or other data. In other words, as soon as you tap the power button on your tablet, you should see any instant messages, email messages, or other updates that occurred when the screen was off — much the way you can on your smartphone.
This is the sort of thing that devices with ARM-based chips have been offering for ages, but it’s relatively new territory for Intel. Today’s ultrabooks can do something similar with a “connected standby” mode, but “active idle” is more efficient. It will also be available in next year’s Core i family processors, code-named “Haswell.”
Intel’s new chip is a 1.8 GHz dual core processor with support for hyperthreading. That means it can support up to 4 threads at once.
The Z2760 is designed for Microsoft Windows 8 and includes memory, graphics, and CPU optimizations to take advantage of the new touch-friendly user interface.
The PowerVR graphics core can also handle HD video playback and 3D gaming capabilities.
I’ve only spent a little time with Clover Trail systems, but in my experience they do seem to be pretty responsive when navigating the Windows 8 home screen, opening apps, and surfing the web.
Technically you might get more raw processing power from an Atom processor aimed at netbooks such as the Intel Atom N2600 or N2800. But those chips draw more power and aren’t optimized for Windows 8 the way the new Z2760 is — so you’d probably notice the differences more in benchmarks or CPU-intensive tasks such as transcoding video than in real-world performance.
Intel says under most circumstances, a tablet with an Atom Z2760 processor should feel at least as fast as a netbook with an Intel Atom N2600 chip, if not faster.
OK, so Intel has new chips that are nearly as energy-efficient as ARM-based processors, and which offer the same kind of all-day battery life and always-connected experience. But why choose a Clover Trail tablet over an ARM-based tablet?
Because the Intel Atom Z2760 is an x86 processor which can handle the full Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro experience.
ARM-based tablets can run Windows RT, Google Android, or some Linux distributions (such as Ubuntu or Fedora) that have been optimized for ARM. But Clover Trail systems can run Windows 8 — which means they can run pretty much any Windows app you can throw at them.
They may not be as fast as systems with Core i series processors when it comes to heavy duty tasks such as playing video games or editing large spreadsheets. But much like netbooks of yore, a Windows 8 tablet with a Clover Trail processor will be able to do almost everything that a more powerful Windows computer can do… it’ll just do some of those things a little more slowly.
But you will be able to run legacy apps designed for earlier versions of Windows. That’s something you can’t do with Windows RT (the version of Windows 8 designed for ARM-based chips) unless developers update their apps.
As you might expect, that’s the sort of thing that’s going to be important to business customers and other institutions that don’t necessarily update the software they rely on as rapidly as you might move from Office 2010 to Office 2013. Intel one of the key markets for its Clover Trail platform is the enterprise space.
Even some apps that are designed for Windows 8 and Windows RT won’t run the same way on both platforms. Microsoft has already said that Office 2013 for Windows RT won’t have all the features of the full Windows 8 version.
Clover Trail chips also support Secure Boot and Intel Platform Trust Technology (fTPM).
Linux and other operating systems
There’s been a bit of confusion over Intel’s position on running Linux or other operating systems on Clover Trail computers.
I asked Intel about this, and here’s the deal. The Atom Z2760 was designed specifically for Windows 8. It’s optimized for Windows 8 and runs that operating system better than any other.
But it’s an x86 processor. You can install pretty much anything on it. Just don’t expect it to run perfectly.
Enterprise customers that aren’t ready to move to Windows 8 should be able to install Windows or even Windows XP on a Clover Trail tablet.
And if you want to try booting an operating system based on the Linux kernel… Intel won’t help you, but they won’t try to stop you either.
Unfortunately the graphics core in the Z2760 processor is a PowerVR core design licensed from Imagination Technologies. That means Intel wouldn’t have the rights to distribute source code for Clover Trail graphics even if the company wanted to… and Imagination hasn’t been very forthcoming with source code in the past.
So while I suspect some folks will try to get Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, Fedora, or other Linux-based operating systems up and running on Clover Trail tablets, you’ll probably have a smoother ride if you stick with Windows.
That’s not to say Intel won’t eventually support other operating systems. The company plays a significant role in the development of the open source Tizen operating system. But Clover Trail is launching first and foremost as a chip for Windows 8 devices.
Most of the prices we’ve seen for Clover Trail tablets so far have been rather… high. While you can pick up an Intel Atom powered netbook for under $300, an Android tablet for around $200, and an iPad for $499 and up, Clover Trail tablets from Asus, Lenovo, and Samsung are expected to run $650 and up.
It’s up to tablet makers, not Intel, to set pricing for their devices. But Intel tells me that we can expect to see some more affordable models.
The Atom Z2760 chip itself isn’t the only reason most of the models we’ve seen so far have had relatively high starting prices.
These tablets have also featured optional (or included) keyboard docks, reasonably large solid state disks, and a full Windows 8 license. All of those things cost money and make it tough to compare this sort of device to an entry-level iPad which has just 16GB of storage, no keyboard, and no support for Windows apps.