Intel's Game Changer: One Size Fits All Haswell

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Low Power x86? No One's Laughing Anymore

It's easy to come away from IDF with an Intel-centric view of the industry. Even after taking a few days to review supplementary materials and consider the wider ecosystem, much of what Intel demonstrated is bad news for ARM partners like Samsung, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and AMD. When Intel launched Atom four years ago, conventional wisdom said that the reason the company built the chip in the first place was because it couldn't make a play for handheld devices with a conventional x86 processor. Plenty of people scoffed at the idea that Intel could make an x86 smartphone at all.
Medfield proved the company could.

Intel CTO Justin Rattner Holds Wafer of Rosepoint Dual-Core Atom CPUs w/ Integrated Digital WiFi Radio

Haswell's 10W target will allow the chip to squeeze into some of the convertible laptop/tablet form factors we saw at IDF, while Bay Trail -- the 22nm, out-of-order successor to Clover Trail -- arrives in 2013 as well. While most folks have been trading blows over whether or not Intel could compete with ARM's CPU power consumption, Santa Clara has been busy designing every other aspect of the system for low power consumption and saving a lot of wattage in the process.

If a device's CPU only consumes 15-20% of the total, it doesn't much matter if its ARM or x86. Intel has positioned itself as a leader in lowering device power consumption in a way that no other company has matched to date. It's not clear that any of them have the stomach to try. AMD hasn't just sworn off cell phones, it's officially given up on competing with Intel's process technology and is emphasizing the idea of using established building blocks of IP.

That approach sounded great in the late 90s and early 2000s, but IDF was just the latest example of how the pendulum is swinging back towards integrated device manufacturing. Intel is the only IDM left standing in consumer hardware or smartphones. Samsung is close, but the pro-Apple verdict of several weeks ago could disrupt the company's entire roadmap. Apple is beholden to Samsung, NVIDIA and Qualcomm are dependent on TSMC, and AMD depends on GlobalFoundries.

When Atom goes out-of-order next year, Intel will have a top-to-bottom product stack that addresses desktop platforms through smartphones. It'll have its own native implementation of everything from radios to graphics. With those advantages, the company will have what it needs to cause serious disruption in the high-end of the market, where a lot of the revenue is.

I'm willing to stick my neck out and call this one early. By the end of 2013 (assuming ship dates don't slip), Atom and Haswell could account for a significant percentage of convertible/tablet sales, even if ARM anchors itself in lower-end or cheaper devices. By the end of 2014 and the launch of Broadwell, Haswell's 14nm successor, Intel will have claimed a majority of the tablet and smartphone market, with ARM increasingly driven into lower-end, less profitable devices. By that point, we'll be talking about laptop dual-core processors with 5-7W TDPs.

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