Meet Clover Trail, Intel's chip for mid-range Windows 8 tablets and hybrids

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SAN FRANCISCO -- If you're looking for a single computing device that marries the easy-breezy touch control of a tablet with the meat-and-potatoes productivity of a laptop, look no further than Intel's new Clover Trail CPU platform. That was the lofty messaging Intel shared at a press event Thursday held in the Museum of Modern Art.

Clover Trail, of course, was discussed at the Intel Developer Forum earlier this month, but today marks the next-gen Atom platform's official coming out party. The stage act was thin on technical details and heavy on marketing spin and finger food, but if nothing else, PCWorld got to play with no fewer than eight Windows 8 hybrid devices running the new Intel Atom Z2760 processor, which runs up to 1.8GHz.

The Clover Trail chip is targeted at low-power-consumption Windows 8 devices that can double as both tablets and laptops. This hardware won't pack the performance punch of hybrids and full-on Ultrabooks running Core-class silicon, but the devices may be just what consumers and business people need for common productivity applications like Office.

Fredrik HambergerPhoto: Loyd Case
Fredrik Hamberger showing off HP's new Envy X2 convertible

"New low-power technology gives us the computing power, the flexibility, to be in both parts of Windows, and to put it in really cool, sexy devices," said Fredrik Hamberger, HP's Director of Consumer Product Marketing, at the event.

As with earlier iterations of the Atom processor platform, Clover Trail's major focus is on low power consumption, a key ingredient for any mobile device that needs to boast long battery life. A few features have been added to Clover Tail to improve application performance, but overall the CPU represents only an incremental advance over the previous generation Atom platform.

HP Envy tablet
The HP ENVY x2 (also shown at the top of this article) is an 11.6-inch tablet that weighs 1.5 pounds, undocked.

Clock speeds have increased while power usage has actually decreased. Also of note: The new CPU still uses a non-Intel PowerVR graphics processor, the SGX 544MP2. Intel tapped PowerVR for its Medfield SoC, which was targeted for smart phones thanks to the GPU's efficiency and rendering performance. Earlier Atom procesors in netbooks used limited versions of Intel graphics, and Intel will be using its own graphics core in future Atom SoCs.

In the service of improved power management, Clover Trail adds a pair of new power states that Intel calls S0i1 and S0i3. S0i1 is similar to the S0iX power state built into the higher performance Haswell processor. S0i1 is an "active" sleep state that takes over when a user stops interacting with his PC, but hasn't actually put the machine to sleep. In S0i1, the PC can resume almost instantaneously, giving users the impression that the system is active even while it was in a sleep state.

S0i3 is a connected standby state. In this state, the system can still wake up in milliseconds, but power consumption in this state is measured in microwatts (millionths of a watt.) The two new sleep states translates into longer battery life. Intel estimates standby battery life for a typical Z2720 tablet to be up to three weeks.

Clover Trail PowerIllustration: Intel
Clover Trail introduces new power states to extend battery life.

Clover Trail is also a dual-core architecture, and supports Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, so it can support four simultaneous threads. The new CPU will also include hardware video decoding, which will enable full HD video to run while consuming minimal power. As with Medfield, the SoC that Intel is using in a few smartphone designs, Clover Trail is built on Intel's older 32nm manufacturing process.

As far as new information announced at Thursday's shindig, there wasn't a lot. The event was more of a PR stunt and hardware showcase than a technical briefing. That said, we did learn that Clover Trail supports cameras up to 8 megapixels, includes hardware assisted AES encryption for improved security, and offers a burst mode for when short periods of higher performance are needed, similar to the Turbo Boost used by Intel's Core CPU line.

ASUS VivoTabPhoto: Loyd Case
ASUS already has much experience with docking tablets thanks to its Android line, and now the company will attempt to repeat its tricks in the Windows 8 world with the 11.6-inch VivoTab.

At the event, we played with some of the Clover Trail-based tablets and convertible laptops. They seem much more responsive than the previous generation of Atom-based netbooks, but until we have actual products in the lab for serious testing, it's hard to say just how well they'll perform for users in the field.

The Windows 8 user interface scrolls smoothly, and even desktop applications seem snappy and responsive. The one 3D game demonstrated at the Thursday event seemed a little jerky and slow, but the fact that a 3D-accelerated desktop action game ran at all was impressive. When it comes to raw benchmarking, performance is likely to be better than first-generation netbooks, with their single-core CPUs. On the other hand, odd feature limitations still exist for the Clover Trail platform, such as lack of USB 3.0 support and maximum memory support of only 2GB.

Intel has expended considerable engineering effort on the CPU's package design so that extremely thin Clover Trail systems can be built while still maintaining adequate heat dissipation. To wit: Intel's Clover Trail reference device is a 10-inch slate that's 8.7mm thin and weighs a little more than 1.25 pounds. Intel estimates that custom designs under a pound and less than 8.5mm are possible.

Clover Trail ReferenceIllustration: Intel
Intel's reference design weighs 600 grams and is 8.7mm thin.

In many ways, Clover Trail is an evolutionary step in the development of Intel systems-on-chips, or SOCs. The next generation of Atom, code named Bay Trail, will be built using the latest 22nm process and will finally bring quad-core CPUs to Intel's SOC line. Bay Trail will also include Intel's own integrated graphics core.

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