A single architecture, from phones to tablets, to laptops, gaming rigs and servers. But can Intel compete with ARM?
When the Blue Team releases a successor to Ivy Bridge in the first half of next year, there will be a heck of lot going on. Haswell is both a redesign and refocus of the Ivy Bridge line. Early indications from the recent Intel Developer Forum are that we will see a 10% plus speed boost per MHz, a slight MHz bump along with a juicy 80% beefier on-die graphics and lower power draw from the perfected 22nm 'Tri-Gate' process. Most critically though Haswell is a chip designed to be scalable like no chip before it has.
There’s a reason for this; there is a certain truth to the future being mobile. Atomic doesn’t condone the hordes of overpriced laptops that never actually move from the tops of their owners' desks (until they day the warranty period ends when they typically shower the owner with fail). However we have certainly reached the point in computing where even slow processors seem relatively fast; there’s no real equivalent nowadays of the chugging PCs in the early 2000’s. This is primarily due to demands on computers not having increased beyond a certain point (how many 1080p video streams do we need to decode and display at once?). This has allowed slower processors to catch up and with the march of progress we’re thus seeing things tending to get smaller rather than push the performance envelope. This in lockstep means even smaller CPUs are getting 'fast enough' and has enabled the quiet but meteoric rise of a family of processors from British company ARM.
Intel’s first foray into low power chips didn't exactly go swimmingly. The mid-2008 release of ‘Atom’ made the Netbook market, however Atom was never quite 'fast enough' for Windows. It never really took off (being beaten by AMD's Brazos) and the Netbook itself was quick eclipsed by the Tablet.
With the iPad and its contemporaries, users not only found a device that was more portable and more functional but had a much better battery life than Netbooks and often appeared to run faster. The apparent speed was due to Android and iOS being specifically tailored for their processors' performance level (unlike Windows). The higher battery life is down to the expertise of ARM in designing very efficient chips such as the Cortex A9 that, while no faster than Atom, have about a third the power draw. This has enabled them to capture about 95% of the smartphone and tablet market. More game changingly, nor has ARM sat still at the low end - efficiency is just as desirable for servers and notebooks. Its newly released Cortex A15 represents a massive jump in performance (considerably beyond 'good enough') and has found its way into both the new Chromebook and its first server racks - impinging on and threatening Intel's traditional home turf. Crack open a Smartphone or Tablet and you’ll find our ultra-mobile, power-efficiency driven future now almost universally has an 'ARM Inside'.
Effectively, Intel and AMD have been silently encircled by ARM Smartphones, Tablets and Chromebooks on one side and the debut of ARM servers on the other, with both sides of the threat pushing further into the traditional PC space. This year Microsoft will also release Windows RT, a version of Windows specifically designed for ARM processors - this is a fight about to enter full swing. To an extent Intel is trying to compete with the first downsized 'Medfield' Atom core for Android phone and tablets. However being an Atom design, it's still pretty slow as Atomic noted at the beginning of the year. As such the Medfield mobile core (which is starting to trickle out into Android phones) is more of an experience gatherer for Intel, as it prepares to move its highly scalable Haswell architecture definitively down, in order to truly compete in the low power market that ARM currently dominates.
This low power-draw market is growing fast, unlike the shrinking traditional desktop/server one and it makes sense for Intel be be aiming its best (Haswell) at it. As a ‘Tock’ in Intel’s cadence, it stays on the established 22nm manufacturing process and brings us an architectural update. As well as the generational improvements we've mentioned, the new design allows a drastically lower (close to 0 watt) idle power draw and sees the migration of even more motherboard functions to the CPU. Haswell has been made more like a cellphone SoC (System on a Chip) than previous 'top tier' Intel chips, while retaining its high-end performance.
The results are pretty compelling; whereas ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) Ivy Bridge variants could manage to turn the heat down to a 17w power draw when active, Haswell will initially be capable of 8w operation. With the next 'Tick' a shrunk version (codenamed 'Broadwell') will likely fit inside the sub 5w envelope. In fact at that point a single ~2w core would be right for a 2014 smartphone – the same immensely capable core in your smartphone, as is in desktops.
That's the essence of Intel's strategy with Haswell. To remain relevant is has to be competitive on all fronts, and value the growing ones. While the type of chip (RISC) that ARM makes is inherently more efficient, Intel will be bringing a huge amount to the game in terms of expereince and design capabilities. Both companies will end up with product lines that extend almost everywhere using a single architecture, with ARM reaching up and with Intel reaching down. AMD is faced with a similar conundrum but has adopted a strategy of Bulldozer (and its Piledriver and Steamroller successors) taking the high end, next-gen Brazos (the chip that beats Atom soundly) taking the middle, while the middle-to-low end will see AMD licensing ARM's processor technology, much as do Apple, Samsung, Texas Instruments and so on.
Exactly how this will turn out is up in the air - it really is the fight that will define computing hardware for a generation. It's not impossible that next decade or so will see x86 (traditional PC processors) virtually extinguished, or that ARM will be beaten completely back by more efficient x86 designs. What is for certain is that next year with the yearly Intel CPU refresh, we will not only see the most powerful CPU yet and some impressive integrated graphics, but also the debut of Intel's all encompassing strategy to try and retain its position, and an inkling of whether it can succeed with its game plan.