Intel hopes that its Moorestown and Oak Trail platforms will see pickup in the tablet sector. It's accelerating its Atom roadmap, hoping to release 22 nm CPUs in 2013 and 14 nm CPUs in 2014.  (Source: PC Forum)

Intel also plans to FINALLY add USB 3.0 support, based on comments. Past commentary indicate that Intel will ship chipsets with support sometime in 2012.  (Source:

ASUS UX Series
Intel plans to hit 14 nm with Atom by 2014

The last couple days have been dominated by Intel Corp.'s (INTC) key competitors [1] [2].  Today at the hardware convention Computex 2011 in Taiwan, Intel fired back reaffirming its commitment to the mobile sector.

I. Die Shrinks Every Year

Intel's Atom is behind.  It's behind Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s (AMD) similarly priced Fusion processor in performance.  It's behind ARM Holdings plc's (ARMH) designs in power consumption.

Despite that, it's ahead in the one thing that really matters -- market share.  

Intel is hoping to maintain that lead by getting more aggressive with Atom.  On Monday, Intel executives reaffirmed their commitment to accelerating the roadmap of Atom.

Atom's codenamed Cedar Trail (part of the Saltwell family) -- a 32 nm Atom die shrink -- is supposed to launch in Q4 2011, three and a quarter years after the launch of the original 45 nm Atom in Q3 2008.  By contrast Intel plans to release a 22 nm Atom, dubbed Silvermont only two years later in 2013, and a 14 nm Atom dubbed Airmont in 2014.

That's the same plan that Intel revealed at its annual investors' meeting two weeks ago.

Cutting its die shrink time from 3 years to two years, then to a single year seems no easy task.  So how is Intel accomplishing this feat?

Well it turns out it already has these die shrinks, on its high-end personal computer lineup.  It shrunk to 32 nm with Westmere, the die-shrink of Nehalem, which launched in Q1 2010.  So the die shrink on the Atom side is almost two years behind.

Similarly, Intel plans to release its 22 nm Ivy Bridge CPU in 2012 (the die shrink of Sandy Bridge), followed by the 14 nm Broadwell in 2014 (the die shrink of Ivy Bridge successor Haswell).  So, in short, Intel should have the technology on hand to shrink atom to the promised marks.  

That's great news for Intel as it would put it at least a year or two ahead of the competition such AMD spinoff Global Foundries, South Korea's Samsung Electronics (SEO:005930), and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited (TSM).  Paired with Intel's recent announcement of tri-gate transistors at the 22 nm node (a 3D design that "wraps" the channel in three dimensions to reduce leakage), Intel may have a winner on its hands.

However, the plan still carries significant risks.

The biggest risk is price.  Intel must keep prices low, even if its new Atom chips begin to close the gap with its competitors in power consumption and/or performance.  That's no easy order, as Intel's aggressive acceleration of the Atom roadmap mandates that it expand its manufacturing capabilities to support full Atom production at a smaller node.  All that costs money, and the questions are where that money will come from and whether that expense will impact the critical price per chip.

A second risk is in a potential letdown post-2014.  Assuming Intel can hit 14 nm by 2014, it likely won't hit the next smallest node until 2016 (following its progress on the desktop side).  And from there it's anyone's guess -- the physical limits of optical die shrinks will likely stretch the time it takes to implement them.

In short, the next several years could be very good for Atom -- or very bad.

II. Medfield, Tablets, and Ultrabooks, Oh My!

Intel also talked a bit about its upcoming smart phone processor "Medfield".  Mired in the departure of a key executive in charge of its mobile unit and delays, Intel hopes to get Medfield out the door sometime next year.

Little is known about the chip.  

Intel promises a fanless Atom, which can deliver enough processing power for a tablet or smart phone.  The only real detail it shared is that it's targeting "sub-9mm designs".  That figure is in line with current state-of-the-art Android smart phones, which are thinner than 8.5 mm, or the somewhat outdated iPhone 4 from Apple, Inc. (AAPL), which is 9.3 mm.

Intel was also plugging its tablet efforts.  The company in April launched Oak Trail, a high-end tablet platform, which is primarily targeted at Windows tablets.  Oak Trail is essentially the same as the Moorestown platform (complete with Z6xx branded Lincroft), with a few minor additions, such as the inclusion of a PCI link.

Sales of Atom-powered tablets so far haven't been stellar, but it's still early and Intel has great expectations.

Rounding off Intel's ultra-mobility push is the so-called "ultrabook".  Intel defines an ultrabook as a small notebook with a touch screen for tablet-like features.  Intel says it plans to transfer 40 percent of consumer laptop production to ultrabooks by 2012.

The ultrabook will come at a sub-$1,000 price point.  Intel gave a teaser of one design -- the ASUS UX21 ultrabook from ASUSTEK Computer Inc. (TPE:2357).  ASUS Chairman Jonney Shih plugged the format, stating, "At ASUS, we are very much aligned with Intel’s vision of Ultrabook. Our customers are demanding an uncompromised computing experience in a lightweight, highly portable design that responds to their needs quickly. Transforming the PC into an ultra thin, ultra responsive device will change the way people interact with their PC."

III. USB 3.0

Last, but not least, Intel dropped mention of USB 3.0.  In his keynote Executive Vice President Sean Maloney called USB 3.0 a "complementary" technology to Intel's "Thunderbolt" -- the preliminary implementation of its "Light Peak" connectivity technology.

Intel has long turned its back on USB 3.0, choosing to push Light Peak instead.  Thunderbolt -- the preliminary implementation of Light Peak -- disappointed, however, offering copper-based connections, rather than the optical connections that Intel (and the tech's title) suggested.

USB 3.0 support is currently provided by third parties who make controller chips for compatible motherboards.  Thus far Intel continues to give the tech a cold shoulder production-wise, even while rival AMD announced the availability of new USB 3.0-ready chipsets in April.  

But Intel is rumored to finally be preparing to get onboard, shipping chips with USB 3.0 in 2012.  The fact that Intel briefly plugged the technology in its keynote lends some credence to this theory.

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

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