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Intel fights back with power-sipping Lakefield chip for weird new PCs

Intel's innovative Foveros chip-stacking technology will debut in unusual new laptops with dual screens.

Intel's Lakefield processor

Intel chip engineer Sanjeev Khushu holds a prototype of the company's Lakefield processor for ultrathin laptops at the Hot Chips conference.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel is stealing a page from the mobile industry's playbook, developing a new processor code-named Lakefield that breaks new ground when it comes to squeezing significant performance into a tiny package.

Lakefield uses a new Intel technology called Foveros that lets the company stack different chip parts onto different layers. That lets Intel build a chip that's getting closer to the size of those in smartphones -- 12x12mm for Lakefield. That area of 144 square millimeters is larger than Apple's A12 processor at 83 square millimeters, but it's small enough to permit significantly smaller circuit boards -- in part because since it includes its own memory that no longer takes up separate space.

"The board area of Lakefield is less than half of other boards we have done," said Sanjeev Khushu, vice president of Intel's Infrastructure and Platform Solutions Group, who spoke at the Hot Chips conference Tuesday on the Stanford University Campus.

Small size is swell, but you'll definitely be interested in another Lakefield feature: all-day battery life enabled by much lower power usage when a device is waiting on standby. That's one of the key features Intel rival Qualcomm is touting for its effort to bring its mobile chips to the PC market, too.

"I see Lakefield as Intel's answer to Qualcomm's... all-day PCs," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Intel expects its Lakefield processor will enable new varieties of PCs.

Intel expects its Lakefield processor will enable new varieties of PCs.

Intel

Intel has struggled in recent years as the chip industry smartphones became the premium market that attracted top engineers, the latest manufacturing processes and the fastest growth. Intel's years-long effort to power smartphones flopped. In addition, it's had difficulty advancing to new manufacturing technologies that shrink chips two smaller sizes and let designers add new features.

Lakefield represents a new competitive answer for Intel -- though it's intended for ultrathin PCs, not phones. Intel has been showing off some unusual new designs, several with dual displays, it hopes Lakefield will power.

"The innovative multi-chip stacking can enable new form factors," Brookwood said.

Hybrid design with big and little cores

Lakefield chips adopt a hybrid approach long championed by one of Intel's biggest rivals, Arm, whose chip designs dominate mobile phones today. Specifically, Lakefield combines a single powerful processor core with a host of smaller, more powerful power efficient cores. Arm calls this "big.little," but Khushu tried to position Lakefield as "big.big."

On Lakefield, there is one big core, very similar to the new Ice Lake processor powering ultrathin laptops arriving this holiday season. Then there are four smaller Atom "Tremont" cores that handle things like background processing and chores that don't need top speeds.

Intel's Lakefield processor hybrid performance

Intel's Lakefield processor uses a more powerful processor core for performance intensive tasks -- shown here in purple as a web page loads -- that shuffles the work to lower-power cores, shown here in yellow and orange. Once the work is done, the processor activity tapers down, with just little spurts of background activities using the low-power cores.

Intel

Although Intel has struggled, Lakefield spotlights a source of power for Intel: packaging. Intel has a lot of different ways to attach chip components together and send data among them. That offers flexibility for making chips suited to different tasks.

Mix and match

Foveros enables a mix-and-match approach. Intel can combine high-performance cores built with the latest manufacturing technology with other components already optimized for older manufacturing processes. That helps Intel get more use out of work it's already done.

Intel is testing Lakefield prototypes now, Khushu said, holding up one of them for an elite audience of hundreds of Silicon Valley's top chip designers and executives.

"It's in the final phases of getting ready for production," Khushu said. Production samples should arrive at the end of 2019. "The product is real."

And sequels are planned. Lakefield is the first of a family, he said. The more powerful processor core is built with Intel's most advanced manufacturing process, one that uses 10 nanometer circuitry features, but Intel will bring Lakefield-style chips to modernized 7nm processes and beyond, he said.

First published August 20.

Update, August 21: Adds further detail from Intel. Correction, August 21: The Intel speaker was Sanjeev Khushu, vice president of Intel's Infrastructure and Platform Solutions Group.