Intel's serious about portability. If doubt lingered in the minds of anyone at CES 2013, the company's press conference this year reinforced its focus on smartphones, tablets, and Ultrabooks, Ultrabooks, Ultrabooks. And, not so surprisingly, quite a few tablets that are also Ultrabooks. And this is a good thing: After struggling to push the notebook industry towards thinner and lighter designs, Intel's finally building processors with the speed and power efficiency to make it all worthwhile.
Lightweight, battery efficient systems hogged the spotlight at the press conference, and Intel chose to stay mum about the desktop flavors of its next generation Core platform, Haswell, to focus on ultra-low voltage and Atom chips. The good news is, everything Intel has planned for mobile computing looks great, and the chipmaker had one welcome surprise to announce during the press event: the immediate launch of a new low-power 7 watt Ivy Bridge chip for tablets and convertibles.
Intel revealed back in December that it planned to release 10 watt chips in the Ivy Bridge series, lowering power draw far below the 17W TDP of its existing ULV chips. Today they announced those chips are currently available, and they're even more power efficient than we expected, drawing only 7 watts of juice.
To tout the advantages of a 7 watt processor, Intel pulled out an Acer Aspire Ultrabook that weighs 20 percent less (and is 20 percent thinner) than its predecessor. The Ultrabook weighed only 1.76 pounds. Intel also briefly showed off the Lenovo Yoga 11S, an 11.6-inch version of the popular Yoga convertible. Lightweight ULV devices arriving in the spring will run on this new Ivy Bridge chip, while systems launching later in the year will be on the next generation Haswell platform.
The Yoga has done more to sell the touch UI of Windows 8 than just about any other device, and Intel has apparently decided that touch and laptops are meant to be together. Haswell is the first generation of the Core i platform to be built specifically with touch support in mind, and Intel's mandating that anything and everything under the Ultrabook brand must include touch controls. Ultrabooks may flock to the convertible design with that requirement in mind--if you're making something with a touchscreen, might as well make it as useful as possible. WiDi, or wireless display, will be another requirement.
Thankfully, Intel promises Haswell will deliver the energy efficiency for all-day use. The company claims that Haswell represents the largest generation-to-generation increase in battery life in its chipmaking history, and their tablet/Ultrabook reference design North Cape hits 13 hours of runtime.
While a 7 watt TDP is positively minuscule for a computer, it's still far higher than the 2 watts or so that most ARM-based mobile devices draw. Intel's finally getting competitive with the 2 watt Atom Z2760 for tablets, which the company claims is five times faster than Nvidia's Tegra 3 (Nvidia says its newly announced Tegra 4 is six times faster than its predecessor, so it's hard to say which is faster until real products are on the market). The 1.8GHz Z2760 is aimed at tablets, and the advantage of an x86-based tablet is obvious: it can run the full Windows experience, not the limited ARM version found in the Microsoft Surface. Still, we'd hold off on Atom-based tablets until the end of 2013. That's when Atom moves down to the 22nm process with a new chip, codename Bay Trail, which will double performance.
This is basically a straightforward year for Intel: Everything's getting faster, and mobile will see the big gains. By the end of the year, touch will be an Ultrabook standard and 10+ hour battery life should be along for the ride. Haswell's battery efficiency will also benefit other ULV-based systems like Apple's MacBook Air. Expect the new stuff to arrive in the fall and winter of this year, as usual; we'll no doubt learn about what Intel has in store for desktops in the next few months.