x86 vs ARM: Intel’s next move is Clover Trail

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.

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5 Responses to x86 vs ARM: Intel’s next move is Clover Trail

  1. T. says:

    I think that the true game changer will be Broadwell. With Broadwell Intel will be able to ship full fledged windows and linux machines in a tablet TDP.

    • Scali says:

      Depends on how you look at it. Clover Trail is already a full-fledged Windows/linux machine in a tablet TDP. I wonder how its performance compares to older laptops. For example, I’m currently typing this on my old Core2 Duo 1.5 GHz laptop. Still quite a decent machine for Win7 and light development (I often use VS2010 or Netbeans on it, also my oldskool stuff in Dosbox/WinUAE).
      I wonder how far a Clover Trail tablet is from the performance of this laptop. It has a clockspeed advantage, and it has HT.
      Broadwell may close the gap between desktop and mobile further (but not entirely of course, the lower TDP will still come at a considerable performance cost, compared to the high-end Core CPUs), but I suppose that Clover Trail is already sufficient as a full-fledged Windows/linux machine for various tasks.

      • T. says:

        The closest I could get to this is comparing Atom D510 against the Pentium E2140 here:
        http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/70?vs=110

        Atom is still significantly slower than the Core chip. Silvermont might change this, but as of now Atom isn’t in the same league as Core. It wouldn’t sustain my heavy excel calculation, and I guess it wouldn’t sustain your vs2010.

      • Scali says:

        I wouldn’t be too sure about that really.
        I even managed to run VS2010 on my old Celeron 1.6 GHz (Northwood) laptop. That is probably a slower machine than even the Atom D510 (which is 2 years old, today’s Atoms have higher clockspeeds, and probably also improved IPC).
        My biggest problem was that the laptop won’t fit more than 512 mb. I bet if it had 2 GB or more, and a faster HDD (or even SSD), it would make VS2010 quite usable.
        An Atom doesn’t have to be as fast as my Core2 Duo 1.5 GHz to be good enough for light development.
        By the looks of it, the Atom D510 is roughly half the speed of the Pentium E2140. A Clover Trail at 1.8+ GHz would be quite a bit faster still.
        So I think we may already be at the point where I could use it as a replacement for my Core2 Duo laptop.
        If you want heavy numbercrunching in Excel, that’s a different story of course. You’d be comparing processing power more directly. My daily tasks don’t rely on raw processing power all that much. In fact, when I upgraded my main machine from a Core2 Duo 3 GHz to a Core i7 860, the difference was negligible in most cases.
        Compile times may theoretically be shorter, but in everyday use I mainly do incremental builds with just a few files needing a recompile at a time, which only takes a handful of seconds at most. Which is why even the Core2 Duo 1.5 GHz machine is quite acceptable.
        I mean, if we’re talking 3 seconds vs 6 seconds compile time… yes, theoretically it’s much slower, but in terms of user experience, you barely notice really.

        Short version: I think you misunderstood (and probably underestimated) me. Clearly Atoms are still significantly slower. My point however was that they may be ‘fast enough’.
        At the very least they are fully x86-compatible, and you can actually install the same OS and applications on them. That’s something no other tablet can do, so in that sense they are ‘full-fledged’.

  2. T. says:

    Hey, I didn’t underestimate you and I apologize if I somehow showed as if I did.

    That said, I agree that by running the same apps albeit with slower performance would configure a full-fledged tablet. The fact that it does not suit my needs does not change that.

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