Intel aims next-gen 14nm 'Broadwell' technology at fanless tablets, Ultrabooks

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Agam Shah

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On Monday, Intel formally unveiled its 14nm manufacturing technology, a capability the company believes will usher in a new generation of fanless Ultrabooks and tablets.

Intel’s 14nm technology will generally be known as Broadwell—the manufacturing technology that will underscore a new generation of products from tablets up through processors powering servers. Within the notebook and tablet market, those products will be known as the “Core M.”

Intel is expected to launch the Core M products and the Broadwell generation at the IFA show in September. An Intel spokeswoman said the Core M will ship before the end of 2014, with systems on shelves by the end of 2014. Broadwell chips for the desktop, using the Core brand name, will follow shortly thereafter, she said. 

Because the Broadwell generation represents manufacturing improvements and not a new chip design, the selling point is significantly reduced power. Shrinking the process technology lets Intel either increase performance while holding power consumption constant, or cut power while holding performance constant.

In the notebook space, Intel has chosen the latter—notebooks and tablets using the new Broadwell chips will offer the same performance as the current Haswell chips (which power today's Core chips), with the same battery life—but much lower power. According to Stephan Jourdan, the chief architect of Broadwell, an Intel fellow, and the director of its system-on-a-chip architecture, that will mean a “radically different” form factor: tablets eight millimeters thin, or even thinner, he said. Intel has already shown off one of those prototype tablets, known as Llama Mountain.

Intel Broadwell 14nm

A comparison of what the 22nm and 14nm technologies look like when viewed with an electron microscope.

Jourdan said tablets running Broadwell chips like the Core M will consume three to five watts. The low power and thin design could mean eliminating one computing annoyance: the hissing fan.

“The one takeaway I want you to have is that this will deliver the experience of the Intel Core in fanless systems,” Rani Borkar, vice president of the platform engineering group.

That doesn’t mean all Broadwell systems will eliminate fans, an Intel spokeswoman said. But OEMs will have the opportunity to design ultrathin tablets systems that could eliminate fans, a real first for the Core processor platform. “Putting the processor behind the glass is a lot more difficult than putting it in the base of an Ultrabook or notebook,” Karen Regis, a mobile marketing manager at Intel, said.

Intel executives say Broadwell achieves a modest 5 percent improvement over Haswell in the instructions per clock. In graphics, however, Broadwell will significantly improve, with 20 percent more compute power and 50 percent higher sampling than Haswell, plus twice the performance of the video quality engine. Broadwell chips like the Core M will support Direct X 11.2, and chips will support 4K and UHD resolutions.

The upshot, according to Bob O’Donnell, principal at TECHnalysis Research, is consumers will have the chance to make a huge leap from a laptop they bought four years ago to the Broadwell crop. In a survey of 2,500 purchasers in the United States, the U.K., China, and Brazil, consumers were interested first in a large smartphone and then a traditional notebook.

“There are major changes there,” O’Donnell said. “That’s why I don’t think Microsoft made the right choice in calling the Surface a tablet. It’s the evolution of the PC. That’s the challenge, that’s the next big thing: incredibly thin designs.”

Broadwell optimized for low power

On Broadwell, Intel’s design team started with the goal of a Core processor operating within fanless tablets. “That was the starting point, that was the vision that the team started with,” Borkar said. 

Intel Broadwell 14nm

A list of improvements Intel made to its Broadwell processors.

To reach that goal, Broadwell mixes in a number of improvements: from 14nm process optimizations and improvements in the chip packaging, to more aggressive power management, or quickly turning off parts of the chip that aren’t being used. Finally, Intel attempts to reduce the power of those chips that are running at a given time as aggressively as possible.

In general, Intel’s 14nm process cuts the power by 25 percent, compared with the 22nm technology used with Haswell, Intel executives said. According to Mark Bohr, a senior fellow in Intel’s manufacturing group, the 14nm process more than doubles the improvement in performance per watt versus the 22nm technology used by Haswell. Intel also added a second-generation Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator (FIVR), delivering better efficiencies at lower voltages.  

Intel shrank the processor package itself by more than 50 percent on the X and Y axis, and an additional 30 percent in height, Jourdan said, to 3 0 mm x 16.5 mm x 1.04 mm thick.

Intel also improved its "turbo boost” technology, which overclocks the chip in short bursts to accomplish tasks quickly and then go into a low-power mode. While Haswell’s PL2 mode allows the system to run at a high-power draw for a few seconds, a new “PL3” mode actually spikes performance even higher—but just for a few milliseconds.  Jourdan also said Intel dramatically rearchitected I/O functions, such as memory and graphics, to help reduce power across the Core M processors themselves.

Intel Broadwell

Intel will save money by moving to a finer 14nm process, too.

Broadwell systems will also communicate information better among system components, the processor, graphics, system fan, WiFi chip, memory, battery charger, and more. The idea, Jourdan said, was to manage power better across the entire system, maximizing the total battery life.

Intel will manufacture Broadwell chips at two 14nm fabs in Oregon and Arizona, with a third in Ireland coming on line in 2015.

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