Intel’s Broadwell and Core M: Why You should Still Care about Moore’s Law

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  August 13, 2014

At a media and analyst event in Santa Clara, CA, Intel executives, including Rani Borkar, VP of the Product Development group, Mark Bohr, Intel senior fellow, Technology and Manufacturing group and director, Process Architecture and Integration, and Stephan Jourdan, Intel fellow, Platform Engineering group, detailed the company’s new “Broadwell” microarchitecture and optimizations made possible by Intel’s 14nm manufacturing processes. These included:

  • Intel Broadwell is the industry’s first microarchitecture based on true 14nm (nanometer) processes to achieve volume production.
  • The first Broadwell-based products are Intel’s new Core M processors, which the company is currently manufacturing and shipping to OEM partners for inclusion in new products.
  • Intel architects and designers achieved 2X+ reductions in thermal design points (TDP) while providing improved performance and battery life, leading to new thinner systems and form factors that run silent and cool.
  • Core M chips can support “fanless” product designs that still deliver optimal compute performance and mobile experience.
  • The first personal systems based on Core M will be on store shelves in time for the holiday selling season, followed by broader availability in 2015.

According to Bohr, “Intel’s 14 nanometer technology uses second-generation Tri-gate transistors to deliver industry-leading performance, power, density and cost per transistor. Intel’s investments and commitment to Moore’s law are at the heart of what our teams have been able to accomplish with this new process.”

The Pitch

Broadwell proves Intel’s technical and manufacturing leadership and opens numerous new markets to the company.

Final Analysis

An irony of the technology industry is that the greater accomplishments become, the harder they are to see. Consider Intel’s achievements with its new Broadwell architecture, which have effectively shrunk the manufacturing of microprocessor transistors from the previous generation 22nm “Haswell” process to 14nm.

Given the fact that a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter (a human hair is about 100,000nm thick) you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference without the help of an electron microscope. But practically speaking, the 14nm process has effectively increased the number of transistors Intel can squeeze onto a microprocessor by a third. Considered another way, while it would take over 7,000 Broadwell transistors to span the width of a human hair, you’d only need about 4,500 Haswell transistors to do the same thing.

That’s a massive achievement in terms of both engineering and manufacturing, but is made more so when one considers the larger challenges involved. A quick ride through Google News history provides numerous cautionary articles from a few years back suggesting that 14nm constituted a “wall” that microprocessor vendors would find difficult or impossible to scale. And, in fact, Intel executives noted that while competitors like TSMC and Common Platform members have announced efforts around 14nm and 16nm processes, they continue to utilize the same interconnect technology they did at 20nm.

In contrast, Intel is delivering both 14nm transistors and interconnect technology, a point the company says has translated into an advantage of more than a full generation of commercial manufacturing process. Some may consider that mere braggadocio, but the fact is that the company is successfully making and shipping commercial quantities of 14nm Core M CPUs while many of its rivals continue to struggle with previous generation processes.

Engineering and manufacturing leadership aside, what does this all mean practically for Intel, its OEM partners and end users? Consider the Core M TDP improvements Intel highlighted. In essence, not only has the company created a process that allows it to shrink the size of the CPUs it makes for 2-in-1s, tablets and notebooks by about a third, but they also run considerably cooler than previous generation processors, allowing OEMs to use them in “fanless” products. In fact, Intel showcased a sleek 10.5″ tablet that was about 0.35″ thick and was running a full version of Microsoft Windows 8.1.

That is a pretty big deal by most any measure. Why? Because Intel has struggled in mobile markets as it attempted to combine improved battery life with maximal compute features, all while competing in markets that had evolved to take full advantage of ARM’s power optimization features and compensate for its sometimes dowdy performance.

Let’s face it: Tablets are mostly marvelous devices with numerous capabilities, but supporting mainstream applications and processes isn’t one of them. Over the past couple of years, tablet vendors have worked hard to ameliorate that, such as adding GPUs to enhance graphics performance and, as in the case of Apple’s Siri, offloading compute-intensive tasks to backend data centers.

In contrast, due to its 14nm process innovations, Intel noted that it will not only be able to support thinner, smaller, cooler running products with better battery life, but that those devices will also deliver up to 20% better compute performance than comparable past generation silicon, along with up to 7X better graphics performance. That should allow Intel OEM customers, including Apple, to support fully-featured capabilities without having to resort to data center sleight of hand.

This also reflects on the role that Moore’s Law—Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that transistor size halves and processor performance doubles every two years—had, both at the Intel launch event and in the company’s deeper culture. We believe that taking Moore’s Law too literally is a mistake, especially when vendors approach the lower end of practical scalability where challenges become increasingly severe and the two-year calendar tends to lengthen.

But even with those caveats, Intel as an organization continues to take deep inspiration and comfort from Moore’s postulation. The fact is that the technology industry has always prized the pursuit and capture of what most considered impossible. As a result, the benefits of those achievements have been felt across every level of society and in all businesses and industries.

Intel is today, as it has always been, a deeply innovative, fiercely competitive vendor that never backs down from a challenge. The 14nm manufacturing developments and Core M processors that resulted from this latest effort suggests that the company’s expansive vision of mobile computing without compromise is clear and on point. What the industry and markets make of it will be a sight to see.

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