Today, nearly all modern smartphones use an ARM-based processor, along with every iPad and practically every Android tablet as well. Soon, though, Intel's x86 silicon might finally pose a challenge. Six years after laying out a roadmap for power-efficient processors for tiny computers, and several failed attempts to make a real dent, Intel impressed us last October with just how power-efficient its Medfield chip could be compared to the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon. That chip used the company's Saltwell core inside, but this year the company's introducing Silvermont, and Intel claims the new 22nm architecture will more than hold its own against the best ARM has to offer.
Intel promises three times the performance, or the same performance at five times lower power than the current gen Atom core, a truly serious boost. In charts (see below), Intel showed us how its dual-core processor can theoretically trounce the competition's quad-cores at one watt, and how a quad-core Silvermont-based chip, like the Bay Trail that will appear in tablets and cheap notebooks late this year, should be able to wipe the floor with the competition with just 1.5 watts of power at its disposal. "If you have an efficient solution, you don't need to play the core count game," Intel Fellow Belli Kuttanana told reporters at a press conference.
But more CPU power and / or longer battery life is only part of the story. Over a year ago, we heard that the next Atom family would have a drastic improvement in graphics capabilities, switching from an aging, smartphone-class PowerVR SGX 535 or 545 GPU to a few of the same Intel HD GPU cores that the company puts in its latest laptop and desktop processors. At the press conference, a company rep wouldn't go quite that far, but confirmed that both the CPU and GPU in Bay Trail would offer double the performance. That's fantastic news for anyone buying a low-power Windows 8 tablet, which performed much better than their ARM-based Windows RT competition but still weren't quite what you'd expect from a full computer. With Silvermont, processor expert Anand Shimpi says we could possibly see performance out of an Atom computer equal to that of a MacBook Air from 2010.
And if those charts lie, or for whatever reason Intel doesn't manage to rustle up the partners and / or marketing campaign needed to convince OEMs and cellular carriers to build Intel-based tablets and phones, Intel should have an even better chance to wow the market next year, when it goes straight from 22nm Silvermont to a (theoretically) even more power-efficient 14nm with Airmont in 2014.
Tick, tick, tick
Starting with Silvermont, the company's promising to update its mobile Atom silicon each and every year with a regular cadence, similar to the famous "tick-tock" strategy that won Intel the lion's share of the desktop and laptop market in previous years. Intel finally seems to be dead-serious about mobile, and if it can manage to deliver the goods as planned, the next time you buy a $200 Android tablet, it might be the highest performing device on the market due to Intel's plans.