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Intel maps out tablet plans through 2014

Intel's tablet plans are becoming clear, as the chip giant rolls out new Atom processors over the next 12 months and releases a redesign in 2013.

Intel's plans for tablets and smartphones are crystallizing into a clear roadmap, as the chip giant begins to marshal its considerable chip design and manufacturing forces to address markets where it is not competitive--yet.

Intel is aiming its system-on-a-chip Atom at slim tablets like the Lenovo IdeaPad which had been demoed with an Intel Atom processor earlier in the year.
Intel is aiming its system-on-a-chip Atom at slim tablets like the Lenovo IdeaPad which had been demoed with an Intel Atom processor earlier in the year. Lenovo

As tablets pour into national retailers like Staples and Best Buy, they are encroaching on shelf space occupied by laptops. Unlike laptops, however, tablets don't sport Intel silicon. Most notably, of course, Apple's iPad, which uses Apple's A5 chip. But Android tablets, too, from the likes of Motorola and Samsung, use chips mostly from Nvidia.

Intel, of course, would like to change that. Its first system-on-a-chip for tablets and smartphones--codenamed Medfield--will be a crucial component of that strategy, though chips that follow may be more important commercially. Medfield will arrive in the first half of 2012, followed by Clover Trail technology in the second half of 2012, Intel spokeswoman Suzy Ramirez told CNET.

Both of those chips will be better suited to the power sensitivities of tablets and smartphones and anything in between--the latter referred to as convertibles or hybrids. "Both Medfield and Clover Trail are targeted at tablet designs but could also be used as tablet hybrids," Ramirez said in an e-mail. Intel's move to Clover Trail was discussed at tech blog This Is My Next.

Medfield marks Intel's move to a 32-nanometer system-on-a-chip Atom processor for tablets and smartphones. At long last leaving 45-nanometer Atom processors behind. Generally, the smaller the chip geometry, the faster and/or more power efficient the chip is.

Intel is revealing few details about either Medfield or Clover Trail technologies at this time. But Medfield is likely a single-core processor and the system-on-a-chip Clover Trail variety a dual-core chip, according to people familiar with Intel's plans. Intel would not confirm this level of detail at this time.

But a dual-core Clover Trail chip would be a good match for Windows 8 tablets and convertibles. That new Microsoft operating system is expected to be released to consumers sometime in the second half of 2012. Recent speculation puts the RTM, or release to manufacturing, for Windows 8 in April. By then, Intel undoubtedly would be gearing up for high-volume production of Clover Trail chips.

And the chipmaker, via its acquisition of Infineon's wireless unit, will also have 4G/LTE silicon ready by then, said David Perlmutter, an Intel senior vice president, when speaking at an Intel investor meeting in May.

Intel's plans for Atom system-on-a-chip for tablets, hybrids, and smartphones :

  • Medfield: first half 2012, single core, 32-nanometer
  • Clover Trail: second half 2012, dual-core, 32-nanometer
  • Silvermont: 2013, new Atom architecture, 22-nanometer
  • Airmont: 2014, 14-nanometer
Source: Intel (with the exception of core counts, which Intel would not confirm)

Though Intel's Perlmutter has downplayed the over-emphasis on core counts--i.e., the number of processor cores inside the chip--tablet competitors like Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments are already discussing quad-core chips based on the ARM design.

And Nvidia--which is supplying its popular dual-core Tegra chip to Android tablet vendors like Motorola, Samsung, and Toshiba--is planning to a roll out a quad-core chip later this year for tablets and high-end "super phones." Those Android products are expected to be announced by the end of the year.

But in 2012 Android won't be the only game in town. Nvidia, along with Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, is also targeting Windows 8. All three of those companies will be leading chip suppliers for tablets and other devices running Windows 8, which will be compatible with ARM processors--not just Intel's "x86" architecture.

Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are shipping dual-core ARM-based designs into products now with plans for quad-core later in 2012. And Apple's next-generation A6 is rumored to be quad-core too.

That means Intel has its work cut out for it, as ARM inevitably makes a play to reach parity with Intel in Windows 8 laptops--and potentially in newfangled Apple devices--which encroach further into precious shelf space at retailers.