We have known for some time now that the current Haswell architecture processors from Intel would be succeeded by chips based on the new Broadwell architecture, but in truth we did not actually have too many details as to the advantages that Broadwell would bring. Today Intel ripped the lid off the new technology with a slew of details that outline a new platform for the industry’s notebook and tablet markets.
22nm to 14nm Technology
The one fact that we did know about was that Intel would again be turning the screws of its core x86 processors with a new manufacturing process based on 14nm wafer fabrication. This follows Intel’s continued drive for greater performance and efficiency by increasing transistor density in accordance with Moore’s Law. Simply put, moving from the 22nm (nanometer) production process we saw with Haswell to a 14nm process, is predicted to yield better performing processors that consume less power.
The improved production process is a larger part of the story for Intel and especially its investors as the road to achieving 14nm production has not been a smooth one. Some even speculated that Intel’s inability to deliver 14nm production indicated the end of the road for Moore’s Law – a reality that Intel deeply fears. Today’s announcement is in part a message of reassurance, stating that the company is still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition in terms of silicon manufacturing and design, and that Moore’s Law is alive and kicking.
Senior Intel fellow and Manufacturing Director Mark Bohr states:
“Intel’s 14 nanometer technology uses second-generation Tri-gate transistors to deliver industry-leading performance, power, density and cost per transistor. Intel’s investments and commitment to Moore’s law is at the heart of what our teams have been able to accomplish with this new process”
Today’s announcement as regarding the new manufacturing process clarifies a few things:
• Firstly, the news release states that the technology is now qualified and achieving volume production.
• Secondly, the technology is using a 2nd generation Tri-gate (FinFET) transistors which offer better performance, improved yield density and therefore lower costs per transistor.
• Thirdly that the first processors to take advantage of the new 14nm process will be Broadwell architecture based.
• Finally, that these new processors will be used to power a broad range of devices; from low power to high-performance
Most of the above was assumed already by the industry, but the fact that Intel has decided to officially confirm all of this stuff just a few weeks away from IDF, perhaps reveals that the chip giant was under a little pressure to officially inform investors and customers of the current status.
Today’s message is loud and clear. Intel is on track with its 14nm fabrication technology, it is already seeing good production yields and is set to produce the next gen Broadwell processors that are more powerful and require less power.
Broadwell: Finally a few details
Aside from their new 14nm manufacturing process, Intel is also finally revealing some details about the new Broadwell architecture that will benefit from the new process. Broadwell will debut on the new Intel Core M processor family which (previously known as Broadwell-Y, the ultra low power end of the Broadwell series). So far Intel has not mentioned any solid details regarding specific CPU models, clock speeds or TDPs, but what we do have is some rather vague information, a great deal of which focuses on fanless device design. What we do know is that early Core M chips will be dual-core only, with quad-core versions available next year. They will also be physically smaller with a board area reduction of 25%.
Intel expects devices based on Core M procesors to be available by the end of the year with broader availability in Q1 of 2015.
As you can see from the slide above, much of the focus is related to power with a greater than 2x reduction in TDP plus better performance. Sounds pretty good. Half the energy, yet improved performance. It would appear however that the key improvements to performance are in fact mostly related the graphics performance and not the actual CPU. While the Broadwell CPU will have marginally better performance over Haswell with some improved efficiencies and optimizations, the integrated GPU will have 50% improved throughput and 20% better compute power. Once again showing that Intel is finally getting its act together in terms of graphics, and that perhaps CPU performance is actually not so much of a concern. Intel also talked up native 4K playback with up to 2x Video Quality Engine throughput.
One area that remains a concern where 2-in-1s are concerned however, is power draw, and this is one area where the new Intel Core M chips will show slightly more dramatic improvements. The main benefits of lower power draw are related to battery life and fanless design. The battery life argument is easy enough to fathom; the processor of a notebook, ultrabook, convertible or two-in-one is by far the most power hungry component in the device. Getting the power draw down with Core M may mean battery life on our mobile notebooks and tablets actually starts to resemble something like what we are seeing on our smartphones – all day battery life.
Fanless 2-in-1 devices?
The other main theme that Intel explores in some depth today, is the idea of fanless device design, specifically in the notebook space is one that Intel seems quite keen on at the moment. Broadwell has been designed to have a wide dynamic range that allows OEMs to tune the power and thermal attributes of the chip according to the target devices needs. This means that the manufacturer can basically turn down the CPU and GPU clocks so that there are virtually no heat problems, thus creating the option of devices that do not need fans to cool them. The benefits of fanless computing from a mobile device perspective relates to creating more rugged and robust notebooks or convertibles that contain no moving parts.
I can certainly see the importance of fanless design where tablets are concerned, but I personally was not aware of the huge need to get rid of fans inside mobile computers like notebooks and 2 in 1s. I am not sure exactly how the OEMs will feel about fanless design either. Will this bring down RMA rates? How many returns and repairs are due to fan malfunction? Is this another case of Intel wagging the dog?
Just as with Ultrabooks, where we were told that thin is in, are we now being told that fanless is fabulous?