Improving Touch Through Host-Based Acceleration
The next step that enhanced touch reliability and sensitivity involved Intel’s epiphany about gesture detection. Most gestures were picked up using the touch panel's USB controllers with dirt-cheap processor cores. Intel’s performance team developed a secret formula that allowed them to improve the software algorithm for both accuracy and speed by shifting some of the work to the host CPU. Shifting the workload, and then using more sophisticated software, became such a significant innovation that Intel chose not to patent it due to the disclosure requirement. Instead, the company elected to protect this the way Coca Cola's recipe is safeguarded: by keeping it fully secret.
This isn't smoke/mirrors and pure marketing. Under embargo, I spoke with the lead software engineer behind this advancement and discussed the technology behind Intel's optimizations. Nobody from PR was at that meeting to interfere, and I had sufficient information to evaluate and understand the pertinent principles. This one's real. I hate to ask you to "just trust us" on this one, but in this case, you sort of have to. I'm not a full-time programmer, but I still took first place in all of the computer science programming competitions held when I was at Stanford University, both involving fast algorithms and my day-to-day research involving computational biomechanics. So, it's not like Intel is pulling the wool over my eyes. More important, you don't have to take my word or Intel's blindly. You'll know as soon as you try one of these machines at a Microsoft Store.
Currently, this technology is present in the aforementioned systems. Intel is also working with the touchscreen chip manufacturers to ensure more tablets incorporate its advancement. Because the technology requires certain elements of the host processor, it can only be achieved using x86-based devices. Interestingly, even though platforms with ARM processors inside cannot benefit, AMD's x86 cores do gain from Intel's R&D. One of the first touch controller OEMs to license this tech is Elan, and you'll start seeing more x86-based machines with Elan's touch controller sporting Intel's optimizations. There's no easy way for you to identify the devices with performance-tuned touch software without doing some extra research, but we'll keep you updated as we review new tablets and touch-enabled notebooks.
Last, Intel had to optimize its CPU. One of the important factors required for a smooth user experience is a consistent 60 FPS. The company's engineers found that a memory controller optimized for smooth graphics scrolling was different than one optimized for SPEC benchmarks, particularly when a CPU and GPU share the same memory. In fact, it turned out that the best memory controller design for great benchmark numbers was the opposite of what was needed for real-world tasks like swiping across a screen. Do you shoot for a constant 60 FPS and optimal experience, or optimize for industry-standard benchmarks indicative of raw computation in heavy workloads? Intel showed that it was serious about the tablet and phone markets by making what I consider to me the only viable choice (and that's on a site proud of its benchmark-based conclusions). Most of the time, Atom processors go into consumer-oriented devices or micro-servers, rather than environments requiring heavy number crunching. So, the smart move is to optimize for Atom's target markets. Taking a hit on the synthetic benchmark scores, then, Intel went for the gain in usability. It thought like Steve Jobs back in '96 working on the original iPhone: user experience comes first.
Windows 8's software optimizations, Intel's R&D into touch panel optimization, its sharing of knowledge with OEMs like Acer for x86-based devices, and a different memory controller from previous-gen Atom processors mean that today's tablet- and phone-focused Atom SoCs are very different from the ones we poked fun at during the Windows 7 era. The branding is the same, but a system like Acer's W510 with Intel's Atom Z2760 is completely different from the old ExoPC with an Atom N450.The jump in responsiveness that an iPad offers over an Android-powered tablet is the same as what Acer's W510 gives you over an iPad. And Intel gets that performance from a standard PowerVR SGX545.