Intel Corp.'s (INTC)
was quick to brag on dramatic process improvements that would propel its Atom
chips to new levels of performance during its keynote at Computex 2011 in Taiwan. The
company says it will leverage its die shrink lead on Core brand CPUs to push
yearly die shrinks for Atom over the next couple years, hitting the 14 nm node a couple years
before ARM manufacturers. And it says it will deploy its new tri-gate
transistors at the Atom's 22 nm node in 2013.
I. Intel Oak Trail Gets Tested
By the looks of early testing, Intel desperately
needs all the help it can get. A dual core Z6xx series atom chip running
on the company's new Oak Trail chipset was shown
off in a prototype design by Taiwan's Compal Electronics.
The prototype packed two CPU cores, running at 1.5
GHz. It also packed an Intel GMA600 GPU, which is essentially a
rebranded PowerVR SGX535.
The new tablet was running Google Inc.'s (GOOG)
popular Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" operating system, the second
most used tablet OS in the world behind Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL)
iOS (found on the iPad and iPad 2).
In a limited set of tests, Tweakers.net,
a Dutch hardware site benchmarked [translated] the new platform and compared it to
rivals currently on the market with similarly clocked dual-core CPUs. The
picture wasn't pretty for Intel.
In the Caffeine 3 benchmark, the Oak
Trail prototype scored a dismal 1562 points, well behind the Asus
Eee Transformer Pad (Tegra 2 based; 6246 points) and the Samsung 10.1v
Galaxy Tab (Hummingbird Gen. 2; 7194 points). This was significant as
Caffeine measures Java performance -- the language most Android apps are
written in. As such, the benchmark provides a key indicator of how fast
apps will run on the tablet -- in Intel's case "very slow".
That result was confirmed by the
Linpack benchmark, which gave a result at 9.4 MFLOPs, versus 36 MFLOPS for
the Tegra 2. Similarly the Quadrant benchmark gave a score of 1978, at
the very bottom of the 2,000 to 2,500 that Android tablets regularly score.
Some Android Phones even score 2,000+.
While these numbers aren't necessarily a bad thing
for all apps (some of which are less demanding), it may mean that on
Intel-based Android tablets you'll have to forgo highly demanding apps like the
early crop of 3D shooter titles.
The Oak Trail tablet did show some promise,
posting the best score (1500 ms) in the Sunspider benchmark, a full 376 ms
faster than the fastest ARM-based Android, the Asus Eee Transformer Pad.
In other words, while Intel's platform may come up short in apps, it
looks like it will handle the internet pretty well.
Unfortunately, two critical performance measures
-- Flash performance and battery life -- were not tested.
The site did evaluate Oak
Trail's temperature performance, writing [translated]:
The settings menu of the x86 port also showed how hot the Intel
CPU in the tablet. In this model ranged between 60 and 65 degrees [Celsius],
and that was quite obvious. The tablet on the outside felt warm, much warmer
than previous Honeycomb Tablets we owned had.
Unfortunately the site did not produce any
quantitative numbers to back its claims. However, if the CPU is truly reaching 140-149 °F, that's a major issue as, at that
temperature, heat conduction could make holding the case very uncomfortable (particularly given the tight casing in modern ultra-slender tablets).
IV. Hope for Intel?
There's hope on both the performance and
temperature front for Intel. It's thought that a major part of the gap in
app performance may be due to optimizations in Android for the ARM
architecture. If Intel pushes hard enough, it may be able to get similar
optimizations for x86 worked in.
The temperature is intimately tied to usage and
clock speed, so there's no way of necessarily escaping that during times of
heavy use. However, Intel could always solve this problem by putting a
small fan in its tablets. While that might produce a "fatter"
less seemly tablet, it would at least spare the user from discomfort.
And in the long term, the die shrink in Q4 2011 to
32 nm should reduce chip temperatures.
The early numbers do indicate, though, that Oak
Trail and Atom-powered Android is a work in progress -- a picture that
stands in sharp contrast to Intel's promise that Oak
Trail would trash
ARM designs in performance. Once we get numbers on battery life we
should be able to see exactly how far behind the platform is.
The Tegra 2 is a dual-core Android by
American-based NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA).
The processors are overclocked to around 1.5 GHz, in typical builds.