While Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) Atom line of low-power processors have found their way into various tablets and hybrid devices, performance-wise the processors are very similar to ARM Holdings-based alternatives. Intel's Core line of processors are vastly more powerful and power-hungry, mostly reserved for ultrabooks and high-end tablets like Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface Pro 3. But until now, Intel didn't offer a middle of the road option.
Intel's Core M, a new low-power line of Core processors built on the company's 14nm Broadwell platform, aims to fill the gap between the power-sipping Atom and the beastly Core. Available by this holiday season, I think the Core M is a game changer.
Filling a gap
Intel's Atom processors have improved dramatically since the days of the netbook, but in terms of performance, they're right in line with what ARM-based chip companies offer. For example, Intel's newest Atom chip, the Z3580, is close in terms performance to Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon 805. While Intel's Atom will continue to improve, it has yet to give the company a real edge over the ARM-based competition, except that it can run Microsoft Windows 8.
Intel's Core processors are far more powerful than Atom, making them both more expensive and more power-hungry. Tablets that are powered by a Core processor require a fan for active cooling, limiting how thin the devices can be, and prices are quite high. The least expensive version of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, for example, is $799, and that doesn't include the detachable keyboard that the Surface is known for. Ultrabooks, typically powered by Core processors, are also quite expensive, often priced at $1,000 or more.
This gap between; Atom-based tablets, 2-in-1s priced at a few hundred dollars, and Core-based devices near $1,000, is finally being filled by Intel's Core M. Core M moves to 14nm, from the 22nm process used by both recent Core and Atom processors, and that enables the Core M processors to provide greater performance-per-watt, while not requiring a fan for cooling. This will allow devices using the Core M to be extremely thin. Intel's 12.5" reference tablet was just 7.2mm thick, slightly thinner than the iPad Air.
Intel has confirmed to Engadget that prices of Core M devices will be far lower than typical Ultrabook prices. While a device similar to Intel's reference tablet would be around $799, slightly thicker devices will sell for as low as $599. This makes them competitive on price to high-end tablets, like the iPad Air, while providing performance more in line with a traditional PC.
Intel and Microsoft should benefit
Microsoft's Windows 8 has struggled to gain a foothold in the tablet market, with just 4 million Windows tablets sold in 2013 compared to a total market size of nearly 200 million units. The key for Microsoft is to offer the kinds of devices that the competition can't match, and 2-in-1s look like the answer. There are already some successful Windows 8 2-in-1s, such as the Transformer Book T100 from Asus, but these are powered by Atom chips and don't offer greater performance than the typical high-end tablet.
The Core M from Intel will allow Windows 8 2-in-1s to not only be thin and light, but also pack the kind of power that no ARM-based tablet can currently match. Intel's move to 14nm should put it about a year ahead of competing foundries like TSMC, which is moving to a 16nm process sometime next year. This gives Intel a significant advantage, especially since power efficiency is so important for mobile devices.
A wide variety of form factors and prices is what will win Windows 8 market share, and Intel's Core M provides the power to further differentiate Windows 8 devices from the competition. We'll have to wait for benchmarks and pricing to see if Intel's new processors live up to the hype, but the Core M has the potential to make a big impact on the tablet and 2-in-1 markets.