Intel unwraps Core M chip that lets PCs run sans fans

The new 14 nanometer processor, codenamed Broadwell, allows for computers that are less than 9 millimeters thick, about a third the thickness of PCs from 2010.

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Rani Borkar, a vice president in Intel's platform engineering group, talks up features of Intel's Core M chip, formerly called Broadwell. Shara Tibken/CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Intel on Monday officially took the wraps off its new processor -- the Core M, also known as Broadwell -- that will let PC makers build much thinner and lighter devices.

Intel and other chip companies are racing to release ever more advanced processor technologies by shrinking the geometries of the chips. Intel is ahead of the pack with its processors built at 14 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Moving to 14 nanometers from Intel's prior 22-nanometer chip, dubbed Haswell, allows PC makers to build devices that are thinner, lighter, more power efficient, and don't need a fan.

Removing a fan is key for Intel as it pushes its chips in tablets and laptops that can convert into tablets. Chips based on ARM Holdings' rival technology already allow for fanless designs.

The Core M hits the market several months later than Intel had planned because of problems manufacturing the advanced technology. Intel in October revealed production on Broadwell would be delayed to early 2014 rather than the fourth quarter of 2013 because of a "defect density issue" that impacted the yields, or number of usable chips. The company has now worked out all the kinks and is manufacturing Broadwell at high volumes.

"When you have a leadership technology, it's never easy, at least at first," said Mark Bohr, a senior fellow in Intel's technology and manufacturing group. "We're in a very healthy range right now and continue to improve."

He added that Intel's 22-nanometer chip had yield issues at first but it's now Intel's highest yielding processor ever. Bohr said 14-nanometer chips haven't yet reached those level of yields but should get closer over the next six to nine months.

Intel on Monday said the first systems using Core M will hit store shelf for the holiday season, but the bulk of new devices will be available in the first half of 2015.

Intel makes chips that power the majority of the world's computers and servers, but ARM-based chips -- including those from Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung -- are used in most mobile devices on the market. Intel has been pushing to make its chips consume less power in order to better compete with ARM chips in tablets. The Core M is key for Intel as it helps PC makers create tablets and devices that can convert between tablets and laptops, computers Intel calls two-in-ones.

Rani Borkar, a vice president in Intel's platform engineering group, during a press briefing showed off a thin PC reference design -- about 7.2 millimeters thick, which is thinner than an iPad Air -- that could be enabled with the Core M. She compared it to a 26 millimeter thick laptop from 2010, which she joked could be used for weightlifting.

The Core M "enables less than 9 millimeter fanless two-in-ones for the first time on the Intel Core roadmap," she said. And "you will get in those systems the Core performance you have come to expect."

Along with fanless devices, the Core M's packaging is about 50 percent smaller and 30 percent thinner than Haswell, which makes it better suited for smaller PCs. The chip also has a 60 percent lower idle power level, which boosts battery life.

CNET News' Ben Fox Rubin contributed to this report.

Update, 10:48 a.m. PT: Adds more details on Broadwell.

 

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