Intel has been working to reduce power consumption while improving performance across its processor lineup. The company’s upcoming 4th-generation Core processors, code-named “Haswell” are expected to offer up to three times the graphics performance of today’s chips, while using less power.
But it’s not just the expensive Core family chips that are getting a performance bump. Later this year the first low-power Intel Atom chips based on the new “Silvermont” architecture are expected to hit the streets.
They’re expected to be up to twice as fast as any Atom chips released to date, while consuming less power. We should start to see Android and Windows tablets with Silvermont-based chips in the second half of 2013. The first smartphone chips based on the new architecture will follow in early 2014.
Intel has been talking about its next-gen Atom chips for months, but today the company started really digging into the details of what makes its new processors tick. And in the process, Intel has shown that it’s taking its low-power chips more seriously than ever.
The first Atom processors hit the streets in 2008, and while Intel gradually added support for multiple cores and better graphics performance, the truth is that an Intel Atom Clover Trail chip from 2012 isn’t really all that much better than a first-generation Atom chip from 2008.
By moving to a 22nm Tri-Gate manufacturing process, Intel has been able to improve performance while reducing power consumption. According to Intel, the new chips may offer as much as 3 times the peak performance of today’s chips while using the same amount of power — or the same level of performance while consuming 5 times less power.
The new chips won’t support hyperthreading, but they don’t need to, since they can actually support multiple cores — the first Bay Trail chips for tablets based on Silvermont are expected to be quad-core processors. Ultimately Intel says Silvermont will support chips with up to 8 cores.
They’ll also feature Out of Order architecture which will let them perform single-threaded tasks much more quickly. Turbo Boost has also been improved, which means, for example, that a 2 GHz Atom chip with a Silvermont core will actually be able to run at speeds even higher than 2 GHz at times as long as there’s no risk of the processor overheating.
Silvermont is also a 64-bit chip, although it’s not clear if that means every product with a Silvermont core will actually have full support for 64-bit software.
AnandTech’s Anand Lal Shimpi has posted a very detailed overview of what’s new in Silvermont, and he estimates that a tablet with a Bay Trail processor will offer performance similar to what you’d have seen from a MacBook Air with an Intel Core 2 Duo chip in 2010. That’s a huge step up from the Atom chips we’ve seen over the past few years.
Of course, Atom performance still falls far short of what you’d expect from the latest Intel Core processors. But Atom chips use significantly less power and will likely sell for much lower prices — this is the chipset that’ll probably be used for those $300 Windows 8 tablets we keep hearing about.
Silvermont-based chips will also likely power future tablets running Android.
Now that ARM-based chips like the NVIDIA Tegra 4, Samsung Exynos 5, and Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 are pushing the boundaries of what a non-x86 chip is capable of, it’s about time to see Intel stepping up the performance of its low-power chips.
While Bay Trail tablets should be available by the 2013 holiday season, we probably won’t see Silvermont-powered smartphones with “Merrifield” processors until early 2014. They’ll go head-to-head with phones featuring ARM Cortex-A15 processors, and it sounds like they could be quite competitive.
Even bigger news might be the fact that Silvermont is just the beginning. Intel now plans to launch a major update to its Atom architecture every year, just as it does with its Core processors. That means the we should see 14nm “Airmont” chips in 2014, and another major update in 2015.