Friday, September 16, 2011

Key takeaways from IDF: Ultrabooks and phones

The big theme of this year's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) was about mobile technology, now and coming in the near future. Barclays' CJ Muse wraps up his key takeaways.

Ultrabooks. Intel wants to have a ~$1000 ultrabook on shelves in time for the 2011 holiday season, but desired features such as "all-day battery life, instant on, and touch capability" won't be incorporated until arrival of new architectures Ivy Bridge (2012) and Haswell (2013). Neither specifics nor benchmarks were disclosed at this year's IDF, Muse notes, but the company did show some ultrabook variations based on Sandy Bridge chips, and even some Haswell prototypes. Anything on shelves this season would be based on the 32nm Sandy Bridge chips.

Intel sees its Atom SoC "in line with mainstream products" by the 14nm node in 2014. Many discount Intel in the mobile space as playing major catch-up with ARM-based technology, but Muse notes that by the 14nm node Intel will have a two-year design cycle advantage vs. other foundries. Intel has a roadmap for a low-power SoC with the Haswell architecture, which is said to offer 20× reduced standby power and be more than 50% more power efficient than today's laptops (~15W vs. 35W).

What's different now vs. Intel's previous attempt to push its with "consumer ultralow-voltage" (CULV) processors? Muse says this time the message is not just ultrathin formfactor and low cost, but also offering at least or better performance than laptops. New features would include fast-start (5sec out of hibernation), a "smart connect" ability to quickly un-sleep to check for updates, and antitheft from McAfee.

One big roadblock in the road to Ultrabooks is cost -- specifically, getting supply-chain partners on board to keep their own costs low, while also designing in the features people want (e.g. sensors, touch) and what the product would require (solid nonplastic chassis, different battery, thinner speakers, low-profile keyboard, SSD drive). Intel is mapping a 40% penetration rate by end of 2012, but Muse "perhaps 20% is more realistic."

Android phone chips. A deal with Google to develop chips for Android-based phones is seen as "a step in the right direction," after a failed partnership with Nokia to develop the MeeGo platform (now relegated to niche use in markets e.g. auto). "Android is the leading OS in terms of units and we see endorsement of Intel's roadmap as key to winning sockets," Muse writes. Intel plans to release a phone sometime in 1H12.

22nm and capex. Intel's IDF is typically more about the chip architecture technology, but Muse offered some thoughts about recent reports that Intel might be tweaking its 22nm ramp-up. "Our checks do confirm that Fab 24 [in Leixlip, Ireland] has been removed from the 22nm roadmap and that Intel has also begun to incrementally cut tool orders here in 2H11," he writes. If the current market softness persists, Intel will pull back on 32nm utilization and switch to 22nm -- not a surprise, Muse says, since by far most of Intel's capacity (80%-90%) is still earmarked for PCs. Muse sees Intel's 2011 capex at about $9B, and lowering to $7B or $8B in 2012. -- J.M.

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