As we saw with Medfield a while ago, Intel is catching up with mobile ARM devices. But now Intel has supplied Anandtech with a Clover Trail-powered tablet. Tablets are a little more towards Intel’s comfort zone, since tablets can get away with larger batteries and more power consumption on the CPU/GPU side. So this time, Intel can pitch an Atom with two cores and 4 threads against quadcore ARM CPUs, in this case an nVidia Tegra 3 in Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet.
The results speak for themselves. Not only can the two-core Atom keep up with the 4 cores in the Tegra 3 in terms of performance, but it does this while using slightly less power. Granted, most of the power savings come from the less power-hungry and less powerful GPU in the Atom, but the CPU itself is also slightly more efficient than the quadcore ARM. This is partly because of Intel’s manufacturing advantage here, since the Atom is built on 32 nm, while the Tegra 3 is 40 nm. This advantage is likely to increase soon, when Intel starts using its 22 nm process for Atom devices, while the competition will move to 28 nm.
And Atom is not the only architecture that will be going up against ARM. Intel has already demonstrated a 22 nm Haswell chip (with the full Core architecture) running at less than 8W. So if ARM wants to scale up towards more powerful tablets/netbooks/notebooks, they will quickly find Haswell on their path. Likewise, it seems that Intel is slowly but surely bringing its full Core architecture down to mobile power levels.
So, Intel is now clearly on ARM’s turf, with both a smartphone and a tablet solution. We will have to wait for ARM’s next move. Intel’s next move is clear: to go 22 nm in 2013. And then onwards to 14 nm in 2014. ARM is currently moving to 28 nm, but where will they go after that?
At any rate, as I’ve said before: we are seeing that the cost of x86 legacy overhead is getting smaller and smaller as CPUs evolve. The x86 overhead already became insignificant for servers, workstations and desktops about a decade ago, and we’ve seen x86 replace one RISC architecture after another, in those markets. ARM is the last big stronghold of RISC processors, and Intel is getting closer and closer. But, as Anandtech also points out: these Intel SoCs need to be used in decent devices with decent software as well, in order to become a success, and so far, Intel has not yet found its way into ‘killer’ smartphone or tablet designs such as the iPhone, iPad, Samsung Galaxy, or the Microsoft Surface tablet.