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Intel Corporation's Upcoming Low-Cost Chip Looks Great

By Ashraf Eassa - May 27, 2017 at 10:15AM

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Details of Intel's next-generation low-cost Atom-based PC chips just leaked, and it looks like the company has put together something nice.

For a while, Intel (INTC 0.32%) didn't take the low end of the personal-computer market all that seriously. For years, it offered products for this market in the form of either badly cut-down versions of its Core processor family, or aging Atom processors that simply delivered subpar computing experiences.

However, 2013 marked an inflection point for the company's efforts in this space, with the launch of its redesigned Atom-based platforms for low-cost personal computers, known as Bay Trail. Bay Trail delivered a substantial improvement in performance, power consumption, and features relative to the older Atom products.

An Intel executive holding a PC processor

Image source: Intel.

The Bay Trail-based chips were also much more power-efficient and cost-effective than the highly cut-down Core-based chips for low-cost notebooks, which enabled more attractive form factors as well as cost reductions.

Since the launch of the Bay Trail-based low-cost personal computer parts in 2013, Intel has regularly launched new products for this market, pushing up performance, features, efficiency, and integration.

Thanks to a new leak from FanlessTech on social media (via AnandTech Forums), we now have details about the company's next-generation low-cost personal computer platform, code-named Gemini Lake.

A better Apollo Lake

Intel's latest low-cost personal-computer processor platform is called Apollo Lake. It is manufactured on the company's 14nm technology and utilizes the company's latest Atom processor core (code-named Goldmont) as well as the same graphics, media, and display subsystem found in the company's higher-end sixth-generation Core processor family (though scaled down to fit the power and cost constraints of a platform intended for low-cost computers).

Per FanlessTech, Gemini Lake will use the same Gen9 graphics engine used in Apollo Lake, but it will have support for HDMI 2.0 output (Apollo Lake appears to only support the older HDMI 1.4 standard).

More interestingly, FanlessTech says that it will include what Intel calls a "Goldmont Plus" CPU core (Apollo Lake has vanilla Goldmont cores), much more level 2 cache memory (four megabytes, twice what Apollo Lake has), and integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity (Apollo Lake has no wireless connectivity integrated).

In other words, it looks like Intel is planning a rather meaningful improvement to its low-cost personal-computer products.

Business implications

Intel's customers -- that is, the personal-computer makers -- want to be able to refresh their product lines each year, so it's important that Intel be ready with new processors to power those new systems.

Beyond its customers' desire to refresh their products, Intel generally benefits when it integrates more features and functionality into its chips.

Indeed, if FanlessTech is correct that Gemini Lake integrates Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, then this means two things. Firstly, system vendors building computers around the Gemini Lake platform will no longer need to buy separate Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chips. This means fewer components to buy and integrate for the system vendors, leading to lower costs and potential form-factor improvements.

Secondly, since Intel is offering a feature of value to its customers, it may be able to boost its asking prices for the chips. In the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chip example, if the chip previously cost a system vendor $5, then Intel might raise its chip price by, say, $2.50.

That price increase would mean revenue and profit increases for Intel, while at the same time saving its customers money -- a "win-win" proposition for all involved.

And, finally, with Microsoft more aggressively pushing Windows on the ARM architecture, Intel rival Qualcomm (QCOM -1.91%) has been rather vocal about trying to push its ARM-based Snapdragon chips into thin-and-light notebook computers.

"We have an opportunity to disrupt the existing suppliers of the PC and the data center," Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said on an April investor call. "Our Snapdragon 835 is expanding into mobile PC designs running Windows 10, which are scheduled to launch in the fourth calendar quarter of this year."

One of Qualcomm's key advantages is that its chips integrate connectivity technology with the applications processor. The more such technologies that Intel can integrate into its future chips, the better prepared it will be to defend itself against Qualcomm (and other potential ARM-based chip vendors) in the notebook personal-computer market.

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