In addition to the other processor announcements this week, Intel also unveiled its latest generation Atom processors at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. The Atom Z3000 ‘Bay Trail’ CPUs are supposed to give ARM processors a run for their money, in terms of performance and energy-efficiency. We tested prototype Windows 8.1 and Android 4.2 tablets with the new Atom Z3770 and compared the performance to the current Atom platform and recent ARM chips such as the Nvidia Tegra 4. Will 2014 be the year Intel makes real headway in the tablet market?
Intel has been boasting for years now that it was about to take the smartphone and tablet market by storm. The reality turned out different, however. Compared to ARM chips, Intel's Atom processors initially used too much power. Not only that, the mobile operating systems were not compatible with Intel's x86 architecture. Over the past year, however, things have started to look up for Intel. It became clear that the x86 version of Google's Android OS ran just as stable and fast as the original ARM version. At the end of 2012 a new OS for mobile devices saw the light of day: Windows 8. However, since the ARM-based Windows RT version does not support legacy software, many people instead opted for an Intel-based tablet.
Then some hardware developments also moved Intel in the right direction. At last year's IDF, Intel announced it was ramping up the development of its Atom processors and would take full advantage of its in-house state-of-the-art production facilities. In the past Atom had lagged behind the Core processors one or two steps in terms of manufacturing process, and that gap would have to be closed. Faster than expected, Intel last year introduced a 32nm Atom series, and from now on each year is supposed to see the release of a new generation using increasingly smaller transistors.
With the 32nm ‘Clover Trail’ Atoms, Intel for the first time had a chip that worked better than similar-positioned ARM chips. When we earlier this year tested two ASUS Windows tablets – one with Windows RT and ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, and one with Windows 8 and Intel Atom Z2760 CPU – the test results showed that the Intel version was slightly faster and lasted slightly longer on a single battery charge. The rest of the hardware was largely identical. It wasn't a huge performance difference, but the victory was nevertheless for Intel. Finally Intel could hold its own with the established chip makers of the tablet market. It has led to some modest success for Intel as Clover Trail is used in many Windows 8 tablets, but also the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 and various ASUS devices.
At CES earlier this year Intel announced it would come out with a new generation 22nm Atom chips before the end of 2013, a claim that was repeated at Computex. That day is finally upon us, in the form of the Atom Z3000 series. The smaller transistors are perhaps even the least interesting aspect of the new generation, called Bay Trail. For the first time since the introduction of the first Atom, the entire underlying architecture has been overhauled. The smaller size of the transistors makes it possible to put up to four cores in mobile SoCs, and Atom will be equipped for the first time with Intel's integrated graphics. The first benchmarks we've run on the new platform are very promising indeed...
Bay Trail is the succesor to the current generation Clover Trail Atoms
Much better performance and more features, that's what we should expect from the new Atom CPU
The prototype Bay Trail tablet we tested for this review