Reading about new CPU developments reminds me of a story by Steven Milhauser involving a maker of miniatures who crafts perfectly detailed objects at increasingly microscopic scales until he has constructed an entire kingdom invisible to any observer.
“Didn’t logic itself demand that the downward series be pursued? At this thought he felt a deep, guilty excitement, as if he had come to a forbidden door at the end of a private corridor and heard, as he slowly turned the key, a sound of distant music.”
Intel’s Developer Forum this year was all about the miniature. Desktops were acknowledged like the old opinionated grandfather at the table, and it was clear Intel was instead gunning to command the mobile market.
(Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. Image via Intel)
“Our strategy is very simple. Our plan is to lead in every segment of computing.” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich
The biggest chips they talked about were the 22nm Haswells for the next line of Chromebooks and the Atom Z3000 “Bay Trail” series, based on the Silvermont architecture. The Bay Trails are the first Atoms made with the 22nm process, and while Intel has mentioned their potential use in desktops and laptops they made it pretty clear the target market is tablets and 2-in-1 devices. The top-end of the tablet iteration of the Bay Trail, the Atom Z3770, is a dual-channel quad-core chip that can run clock speeds up to 2.4 GHz and support resolutions up to 2560 x 1600. No third-party benchmarks have been completed but Intel’s demonstration at the IDF, which pitted a device equipped with a Bay Trail chip against another using Clover Trail, showed this new SoC as significantly faster and more efficient than the older model. It puts out lower thermals and so allows for fanless devices, and its burst mode increases clock speed to complete tasks faster and enable the device to idle sooner — all of this resulting in an active battery life of 10 hours and three weeks on standby.
More remarkable, given this and the $199 price tag, is that this chip can handle gaming, 4K video playback and graphics editing. Four threads and the 2MB L2 cache allow multi-tasking and content creation, meaning photo and video editing will become more reasonable tasks on tablets. With Intel promising 64-bit support in 2014 the Bay Trail is set to improve tablets’ usability and may even see wider acceptance for 2-in-1s.
(A Haswell chip. Image via Intel)
AMD wasn’t mute during Intel’s biggest event of the year. After handing out “chips” they announced the Elite Mobility A4-1350 Quad-Core APU aimed at small-screen touch notebooks, tablets and hybrids. This chip combines the Jaguar x86 CPU cores with AMD Radeon HD 8000-series graphics and features up to 1GHz CPU clock speed, 300MHz GPU clock, 128 Radeon cores, 4MB of L2 cache and max DDR3-1066 — all of this while drawing 3 watts of power under average use, an 8W TDP and up to 12 hours resting battery life. Other devices are already using AMD’s Elite Mobility line of chips, including the HP Pavilion 11 Touchsmart and the Acer Aspire V5, though this chip will ship in October for devices measuring 13 inches and under.
Intel’s other offerings at the 2013 IDF were even smaller. The new Broadwell chips for laptops, which will ship in the second half of 2014, stock 14nm transistors while offering a 30% power improvement over the current generation of Haswells, a 1/3 improvement in battery longevity and a power draw of 4.5 watts, meaning Broadwell laptops can go fanless.
(The Intel Quark. Image via Intel)
But Intel didn’t stop there. They announced a new chip aimed at wearables called Quark, an SoC that, at 1/5 the size of Atom cores, is the smallest silicon yet. Also stocking 14nm transistors, the Quark consumes just 10% of the power of an Atom chip but boosts performance by over 30%. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich is expecting this chip to make the “Internet of Things” an actuality.
This laser-like focus on mobility might eventually see desktops increasingly used only by enthusiasts as smaller options offer sufficient and efficient power for the mainstream. Though still undeveloped, wearable technology has the potential to usurp and completely change our relationship with computing as we do it today.
We’re heading down a path with little insight into the consequences, though I think now the temptation to continue is greater than any desire to pause and reflect. At the end of the Milhauser story the miniaturist is at work on his invisible kingdom, having been shunned by the king and the kingdom and realizing “that by venturing beyond the visible world he had embarked on a voyage more perilous than he had known.
“…as he sank below the crust of the visible world, into his dazzling kingdom, he understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.”