Intel’s Newest Core Processors: All About Graphics And Low Power

By Patrick Moorhead - June 4, 2013
Intel today launched today at Computex a dizzying array of new processors that scale all the way from thinner tablets to touch notebooks to the highest-end workstations.  The new line of processors, code named “Haswell,” areIntel’s 4th Generation of processors, hoping to ignite what has been a very stale market for personal computers.  With Intel’s focus on enabling more tablet-like features and improved graphics, I believe the new systems will drive much higher levels of excitement than has existed in the PC market in a very long time. New Form Factors I fundamentally believe that as the notebook gets closer to the tablet in convenience, battery life, and weight, more (not all) buyers will choose a new thin notebook, detachable, or hybrid before a 10” tablet. It operates on a sliding scale, too, establishing a direct correlation between the PC’s proximity to tablets and the propensity to buy. The challenge with Intel’s past PC chips is that while they delivered high levels of performance, they also drew too much power to fit into thin (>10mm), fanless chassis, only got around 5 hours battery life, and drove what would be thick and heavy form factors when compared to a tablet.  Intel’s 4th gen processors change most all of that. Lower Power Intel’s 3rd generation processors took power, measured at TDP (thermal design power), as low as 17 watts.  This is around 4X the max power of today’s ARM-based SOCs from Qualcomm QCOM -2.09% and Nvidia NVDA +1.61%.  While Intel’s “Clovertrail” silicon and the latest “Bay Trail” SOC do hit closer to ARM-based power levels, they didn’t provide full PC performance. Intel’s 4th generation silicon can go as low as 6 watts, measured by SDP (system design power), a dramatic decrease.  As importantly, it also supports connected standby, where your information will always be fresh three times longer and also improved battery life by up to 50%.  What does this enable with real end products? If you’re an OEM, having all these power features gives you the freedom to make many more tradeoffs between the form factor, weight, thickness, battery life, and performance. The most intriguing designs powered by Intel’s latest processors will be what they call “2 in 1” devices, or detachables and convertibles.  Detachables separate into two pieces, a very thin tablet and a keyboard.  Convertibles transform from tablet to notebook with a set swivels and hinges.  Think of the Dell DELL +0.15% XPS 12 or the Yoga 13.  Compared to last years’ designs, these “2 in 1”s will be thinner, lighter, have better battery life, and/or be less expensive.  Many designs are on their way as Intel is reporting there are 10X more designs in the pipeline than last year and available for the holiday selling season. While I don’t expect this year a fanless, 9.5mm tablet with full PC performance and 10 hours battery life, I believe it is technically possible with follow on Intel products based on Haswell-architecture.  Net-net, by getting closer to 10” tablets in convenience, weight, and battery life, this will motivate more consumers to buy.  Let’s talk graphics. Improved Graphics Compared to the competition, Intel has been challenged in consumer graphics for a long time.  They always seemed to show up with solid architecture, but they didn’t invest in enough graphics transistors and/or the consumer drivers just weren’t where AMD and Nvidia were.  AMD and Nvidia waterfall their higher-end graphics to lowest tier solutions after three to four years, and therefore have years to work on drivers where Intel has months.  The end results for Intel were much lower consumer performance and lower game quality. Intel improved a lot of that with their 4th generation processors based on early reviews I’ve seen. I give Intel a lot of credit, but only after more games are tested can I completely assess where the graphics are. One very specific thing Intel did to beef up its graphics performance on its more expensive configurations called “Iris Pro”, was to add eDRAM.  Adding discrete graphics memory really helps with performance because you are using dedicated, not shared memory which improves latency and bandwidth. This now gives Intel access to the mid-range graphics market it never had.  With Intel’s improved graphics, does this mean AMD and Nvidia slide into the abyss? Impact to AMD and Nvidia Graphics? Every year for the last four years, Intel has introduced significantly improved graphics.  Then the uninformed say, “Nvidia and AMD discrete graphics are dead” or “now AMD APUs are dead.”  Those pundits have been wrong every time for a decade.  While Intel has significantly improved its graphics and deserves a lot of credit for it, to assess the competitive impact, you need to consider a few things:
  • AMD APUs will compete mostly this year with lower-end graphics in Ivy Bridge; Core i5, i3 and Pentium, not a lot of 4th generation Core.  This means 4th gen Core will primarily compete with the follow on to AMD’s “Richland”.
  • AMD still has yet to launch its follow on mid-range products, “Richland”, which will undoubtedly raise the graphics game.
  • Nvidia and AMD have yet to introduce their low end discrete solution and pricing that compete with Iris Pro.  This will make a difference.
  • China, Russia, and Western Europe both use AMD and Nvidia discrete graphics as an upsell and nothing that Intel has brought to the table so far will change that short-term.  Intel has the cash to fill Iris and Iris Pro brand with meaning but competing with GeForce and Radeon won’t be easy in consumer.
  • Intel Iris isn’t targeted at the mid-range or high-end gaming market.  This is where both AMD and Nvidia make most of their profit dollars, so if Intel were to take some of the low end discrete, it would hit revenue, not profit.
  • Intel Iris Pro is soldered to the motherboard in a BGA (ball grid array) package, not a card. This could limit desktop penetration as I believe many channel partners would rather stock a $50 graphics card, add to their motherboards then stock a $250-200 motherboard.
  • Intel graphics already dominate the enterprise PC market where they are very happy with Intel’s integrated PC graphics.
  • Nvidia owns the mid and high-end workstation market and Iris and Iris Pro don’t compete in this market.
Mid-term, I don’t expect any dramatic impact to AMD or Nvidia and I’m taking a wait and see attitude. There is elevated risk that Intel could take a little mid-range discrete share in those countries who don’t use discrete graphics as an upsell, but we have to see how that plays out. Summary Intel has methodically improved power and graphics over its last two generations of Core-branded processors with “tick-tock” precision culminating with “Haswell”, or the 4th Generation Core Processor.  What makes this launch so different is that it takes PC performance a lot closer to the hairy edge of today’s thin and light tablet form factors and battery life.  I believe that if Microsoft MSFT +1.59% can improve sentiment with Windows 8.1, Intel’s new processors will give consumers and businesses many more reasons to buy more notebooks, detachables, PC’s than they did over the last two years.
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.