With the Core M, Intel promises thinner, cooler, more powerful PCs

intel broadwell package diagonal sep 2014
Image: Intel

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Rarely does Intel stumble in the microprocessor market, and the first chips of the “Broadwell” generation, the Core M, deliver improvements across the board: better CPU and graphics performance, longer battery life, and the promise of new, thin, fanless PCs. 

But Intel did stumble, thanks to an unexpected manufacturing glitch that delayed the Core M for the better part of the year.  As a result, the Core M chips that Intel executives are expected to announce Friday at the IFA show in Berlin will appear in just twenty different Core M notebook models due this holiday season. And that’s a real shame, given that Intel appears to have succeeded on all fronts.

Intel’s “tick-tock” model has been the heartbeat of the PC industry since former CEO Paul Otellini introduced the concept in 2007. For the "tick," Intel launches a new manufacturing process that shrinks a current chip's microarchitecture while also improving its performance, efficiency, and capabilities. For the “tock,” Intel applies the innovations from the "tick" cycle to a new processor microarchitecture. That’s true of the Broadwell generation, which has taken the current fourth-generation Core chip, known as “Haswell,” and moved it to a new 14-nanometer manufacturing process. 

intel broadwell die horizontal sep 2014 Image: Intel

Intel Core M processor die in horizontal view.

With the new Core M chips, Intel claims you'll see CPU performance up to 50 percent faster, graphics performance up to 40 percent faster, and battery life up to 1.7 hours longer. In addition, an upgraded “platform” will include such features as improved wireless display and wireless docking, and “smart sound” technology. A spinoff of the Broadwell chips for desktop PCs, known as the “Broadwell U,”  will begin production before year’s end, shipping as part of Intel’s Core brand early in 2015. 

Faster chips, but also new hardware

But if there’s one image that Intel has tried to equate with Broadwell, it’s the notion of a tablet thinner than 9 mm. Intel’s research showed that thinner, lighter devices like tablets were desirable, and customers would buy them, according to Andy Cummins, a marketing manager at Intel. So Intel pushed the thermal design power of the Core M down to the 4.5W range—where OEMs could eliminate the fan and slide it into a tablet or a 2-in-1 hybrid, which is almost the same thing. Unsurprisingly, Intel’s flagship Core M hybrid PC is the Lenovo Helix, a fanless two-in-one announced at IFA. (It will also appear in the Dell Latitude 13 7000, among others.)

“Haswell’s good, but there was still a piece that was missing, and we had to push it even further… and the next thing was, how do we make this thing fanless,” Cummins said. “Because we really wanted to make a 2-in-1, and we’d have to make one of the [pieces] a real tablet, not where the computing [chip] is in the base.”

lenovo thinkpad helix

The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is one of the first notebooks to use the Intel Core M.

Intel is positioning the Core M at convertible two-in-ones, which flip the screen back 180 degrees like the Lenovo Yoga; and at detachable two-in-ones, where the tablet portion undocks. Intel’s Atom chips will be used for tablets and smartphones, with Core chips sliding into premium notebooks and above.

Unfortunately, Intel isn’t revealing the price of the Core M chips quite yet. But the company is announcing the speeds and feeds of the three Core M chips: the Core M 5Y70, 5Y10a, and 5Y10. The latter chip, the 800MHz 5Y10, will appear in 4-watt fanless designs, Intel says. Otherwise, from a clock standpoint, the Core M chips will be rather pokey, with a base speed of just 1.1GHz. But Intel’s “turbo mode” can rocket them up to a maximum of 2.6GHz when needed.

intel core m speeds and feeds Intel

So far, only three Core M chips have been announced.

It’s the discrepancy between the base and turbo frequencies that underlies some of Intel’s claims of longer battery life. Note that the graphics portion of the chip, which Intel refers to as the new Intel HD Graphics 5300, can be clocked anywhere from a base frequency of just 100MHz to 800MHz or higher. That means the chip can run in a power-saving mode until called upon for higher performance.

As thin as a tablet, as powerful as a PC

Intel claims that a Core M-powered 2-in-1 can be made thinner and lighter than a traditional tablet, with more powerful platform elements like USB 3.0. (Price is carefully left out the equation.) And compared to a fourth-generation Core i5-4302Y artificially slowed down to run at 4.5W, performance can be up to 82 percent faster, with an additional 1.7 hours of battery life. Part of the additional battery life is also due to the separation of the audio component onto a small, dedicated low-power DSP.

intel core m comparison Intel

Intel’s comparison to its own chips from a year ago.

Intel even claims that you’ll be able to play modern games at surprisingly high levels of performance. Intel’s HD Graphics 5300 will support DirectX 11.2, OpenGL 4.2 and OpenCL 2.0, with resolutions up to 3840x2160.

Other improvements due with the Core M chips will include a new Wireless-AC 7265 2x2 802.11ac component; Wireless Display (“WiDi”) 5.0, and wireless docking support. Unfortunately, wireless charging isn’t supported, at least by Intel’s own processor.

For such a power-sipping chip, the Core M is “huge:” 1.3 billion transistors—more complex than the four-core Itanium mainframe chip Intel built in 2002. The subsequent process shrinks have made the die size far, far smaller. But that’s the message Intel wants to impart: dramatically increased performance, in a small, power-conscious envelope. There’s good reason to believe the next generation of PCs will be smaller, faster, and more efficient as a result.

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