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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Faster and greener chips

Intel is counting on its new processors to boost PC sales.
The Straits Times - September 19, 2012
By: Alfred Siew
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Faster and greener chips PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALFRED SIEW

Expect faster yet less power-hungry chips in Intel ultrabooks next year.

Just months after PCs started shipping with Intel's third-generation Core chips, the semiconductor giant is already designing next year's processors in a bid to make ultrabooks more attractive next to tablets and smartphones.

The fourth-generation Core chip, unveiled last week, will use half the power of existing chips while providing the same performance when they appear in PCs next year.

At full speed, it is twice as fast. When idling, it uses 20 times less power than existing chips, making it valuable for ultrabooks that double up as touchscreen tablets.

The company is increasing its bet on ultrabooks next year, helped by innovative designs from PC makers which flip, swivel and slide to reveal touchscreens that offer similar convenience to tablets such as the Apple iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Intel hopes the new chip, codenamed Haswell, will stem the flagging sales of PCs and help it get a foothold in the tablet market where the technology of its processors lag behind those made by rival Arm.

Most smartphones and tablets today use processors based on the technology of Arm.

The PC chipmaker's strategy: faster performance and compatibility with Windows programs.

"Mobile computing is not just about being mobile, it's also about computing," said Intel executive vice-president David Perlmutter last week, while unveiling the new chip at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

He said ultrabooks will continue to be the "hero" product next year, despite much of the consumer attention being focused on Apple's iPhones - the latest of which was launched in the same week and at a stone's throw away in an adjacent convention centre here.

Among the new products Intel unveiled at the forum was Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga ultrabook, which has a touchscreen that can be flipped around to work like a tablet. Another interesting product: a Sony machine that had a snap-out screen, again to pull double duty as a touchscreen tablet.

Besides new designs, Intel is also banking on interfaces which it hopes will bring the wow factor back to PCs.

At the event, company executives showed off speech-recognition software that reminded one of Apple's Siri and used a Kinect-like motion-sensing camera from Creative to show the versatility that its more powerful chips can offer for portable devices.

The key to Intel's success is how people will take to the new touch-based interface on Windows 8, when it ships in the coming months.

Experts note that while users will continue to upgrade their PCs, they are taking longer to buy new machines because the old ones often work very well doing things such as surfing the Web.

Some 30.3 million PCs were shipped in Asia-Pacific in the second quarter of this year, falling 2.6 per cent from a year ago, according to a recent report by research firm Gartner.

Despite much talk about ultrabooks, consumers did not actively purchase them, probably due to their high prices, said principal analyst Lillian Tay.

The story is somewhat different with tablets and smartphones. With them, users are more willing to spend on a new device - perhaps every year - because of the hype accompanying each new device.

"The wide array of alternate products entering the market is also affecting consumer spend, resulting in declining interest in PC spending," wrote Ms Tay in the Gartner report.

Intel in Android tablets early next year

Besides pushing out Windows-based ultrabooks which double up as tablets, Intel is taking aim at the Android tablet market as well.

The company expects to have its new low-power "Clover Trail" Atom chip in Android tablets by early next year, said senior vice-president Tom Kilroy.

The Atom chip had originally been designed for Windows 8 devices but Intel recently clarified that it would also be making the chip compatible with the latest Android 4.1 operating system.

Mr Kilroy did not say which devices will sport its new Atom chip. The effort will add to the company's recent attempt to have Intel processors in smartphones. So far, only Motorola, Lenovo and a handful of European operators have made such devices.

Intel's latest move in these two fast-growing segments is key to retaining its hold on the market as its previous attempts to break through have been rebuffed.

Mr Kilroy said its past attempts failed because its products did not differentiate themselves from the competition. But he said the company's new processors will make an impact on the market. "This is a whole different play," he stressed.

The importance of battery efficiency

Since Intel rolled out the concept of ultrabooks last year, there have probably been more PC designs now than in the past several years.

There are now laptops sporting touchscreens and ones which swivel or snap out to transform into tablets.

While the early reception to ultrabooks have been lukewarm in some places, PC makers are banking on new versions of these slim machines to make an impact on the market during this holiday season and the next.

With the roll-out of Windows 8 in the coming months, Intel, Microsoft and its PC maker partners are banking on the things that the PC has always done well - Outlook, Powerpoint, maybe even some games - and also on the PCs that double as tablets which will outperform an iPad or Galaxy Tab.

This is where battery life is key.

By tuning its upcoming fourth-generation Core chips to run with less power, particularly when idling, it hopes to have PCs that run for a day without the need to be charged.

But with so many devices out there, will consumers pick one to do it all?

An iPad can run basic Office apps and lets users send e-mail messages easily with a wireless keyboard.

On the other hand, a PC may be bulkier but it lets people run whatever Windows programs they want and can easily be hooked up to a large screen when they get to the office.

Even Intel is unsure how this much talked-about convergence will pan out.

When asked about it, Intel senior vice-president Tom Kilroy said users could very well use a number of devices, say, a tablet or PC, instead of going for a single machine.

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