The energy-efficient fifth-generation Core chips will enable fanless laptops that can be converted into tablets, and a handful of them are on the way.
Intel's next-generation chip family, the Core M, will arrive in the real world starting next month as Acer, Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Toshiba start shipping portable devices built around the power-efficient processor.
Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's personal computing division, announced the imminent arrival of the new designs during a speech Friday at the the IFA electronics show in Berlin. The premium chip, which consumes a dramatically low 4.5 watts -- less than even new power-efficient light bulbs -- is geared for a newer class of hybrid computing devices that can act either like tablets or PCs.
"You can get the best of both worlds in one device," Skaugen said, "but we think there's been something missing from this category: a purpose-built processor for it." The chip will enable long battery life -- 8 hours of video watching -- and machines that run cool enough to forsake noisy cooling fans.
Intel has a lot riding on the chip. The company dominates the PC market, but customers have shifted their gadget spending to smartphones and tablets that typically use processors based on designs from Intel rival ARM. The Core M's power efficiency could help convince consumers that tablets are an extension of the PC market, since the hybrid "2-in-1" designs feature keyboards that can be detached or flipped out of the way.
If Intel succeeds in its ambitions, laptops could be trendy again. With tablet sales hitting a plateau, that idea isn't as laughable now as it was a year or two ago.
Among the Core M-powered devices are very slim conventional laptops as well as convertible designs:
"You have to ask yourself, 'Why would I ever buy a tablet again?'" Skaugen said.
Well, presumably because Apple iPads, and tablets powered by Google's Android operating system, have abundant software, while embracing Microsoft's touch-capable Windows 8.1 isn't always a top priority for programmers. But more affordable, capable hybrids could help Microsoft's vision become a reality.
The Core M processor itself is the first to be built using Intel's 14-nanometer manufacturing process, which has electronic elements measuring just 14 billionths of a meter across. To deal with the physics challenges of shrinking transistors to that scale, Intel moved to a three-dimensional "tri-gate" design with transistor components poking up out of the plane of the processor. The first move came with the current batch of processors, but the soon-to-arrive Core M will be the second-generation design.
The Core M is the first of the 14nm "Broadwell" family, the fifth generation of the Core-branded line.
Compared with the comparable fourth-generation Core chips, the Intel Core M is 50 percent faster at computing and 40 percent faster at graphics, the company said. But Intel prefers to compare the Core M's performance to that of the chips in the many 4-year-old laptops still in use today. There, the Core M doubles computing power and improves graphics performance sevenfold, Intel said.
Intel will produce more-powerful Core i3, i5 and i7 versions for other computers that need more processing power or that don't have such demand for lower power consumption.
"Core i3, i5 and i7 fifth-generation chips are in production and will be shipping in the millions in the fourth quarter," Skaugen said.