Based on the per-core and modular design changes that Intel made to Silvermont, next-generation Atom processors could very well change how we think about the family’s performance attributes. And that’s great. But up against the ARM-based SoC competition, speed isn’t Atom’s biggest issue. Power is. Although we’ve seen the 32 nm Z2760 hold off Qualcomm and Nvidia, truly overcoming an incumbent ARM-based architecture requires that Intel lean hard on its process experience to optimize for efficiency, too.
That’s exactly what it says it’s doing with 22 nm. In fact, because Atom is a SoC, Intel can leverage multiple versions of the 22 nm process to maximize performance or density. So, the total sum of Intel’s process advantage, the architecture it enables, and the optimizations baked in to curb power consumption, equals what the company calls a wide dynamic range of operation. How does this range manifest itself? Check out the slide below:
Don’t read the lines as final relative performance—Intel and the unnamed-vendor-with-asymmetric-cores probably won’t wind up in the same places on a chart with actual data labels. Intel’s point is clear, though. The Silvermont architecture is expected to enable very low power consumption and very high performance using the same symmetric approach employed by Saltwell. It’s that much better, though, due to the interplay between 22 nm manufacturing, per-core IPC improvements, scalability across multiple cores, and tweaks to bring minimum core power down.
Meanwhile, asymmetric approaches incur performance penalties for switching from power- to performance-optimized logic, and then lose efficiency to the higher power requirements of those faster cores. If there’s one key visual that reflects the potential impact of Silvermont, this is it. Achieving lower power at higher minimum performance and better performance (also at lower core power) than the competition is what will make Silvermont shine, should Intel’s projections come to pass.
So Does Silvermont Change The Game?
During its deep-dive briefing, Intel showed off a number of slides with projections of performance and power. Some of them compared Saltwell to Silvermont, reflecting big jumps and cuts in each of those categories, respectively. Others showed dual-core Silvermont outperforming dual- and quad-core solutions from the competition well under the power target for smartphones. A third set illustrated Silvermont’s performance advantage at fixed power, and power-savings at peak performance. In every chart, the same message was hammered home. You can compare the field at a set power figure and Silvermont is faster—and not by a small amount. Or, go all-out on performance and the Silvermont architecture uses less power—also not by a small amount.
Of course, products based on Silvermont aren’t yet available, to say nothing of the tablets or smartphones built using those devices. So, Intel’s upcoming solution is competing against hardware already on the market in these slides. Nevertheless, today’s architecture announcement is the next logical step toward the predictions we made in Mobile: Intel Will Overtake Qualcomm In Three Years, keeping our outlook on-track.
We eagerly await more detail on actual SoCs based on Silvermont and Intel’s choice of graphics (rumored to be its own Ivy Bridge-based technology) to test. Intel proved with its Atom Z2760 and Windows 8 that tablets can be every bit as flexible as PCs. That combination ultimately lacked performance and build quality. Silvermont will almost assuredly address the former. Now Intel needs its partners to step up and deliver handheld devices that don’t suck. Then, it’ll truly bury the ecosystem-limited ARM-based competition.