When Lenovo (NASDAQOTH:LNVGY) launched its Yoga 3 Pro laptop with a low-power Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Core M processor, it received a lot of criticism for not having the performance of its predecessor. Additionally, the system came packed with a fan, to the disappointment of many who were expecting a fanless system. However, as I've had time to reflect upon the Yoga 3 Pro and Core M in general, I'm starting to realize the sheer business brilliance behind this processor family.
A decline in laptop performance
The Core M, according to Intel, offers a 4.5-watt thermal design power rating and can be used in fanless systems. Although Lenovo, for whatever reason, included a fan in the Yoga 3 Pro, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) recently announced a new ATIV Book 9 Ultrabook powered by the Core M chip. Unlike the Lenovo device, this machine actually is fanless.
More importantly, though, this device apparently serves as a replacement to the 15-watt Haswell-based ATIV Book 9 laptops that are on the market. The odds are good that CPU performance -- similar to when Lenovo moved from the Yoga 2 Pro to the Yoga 3 Pro -- will come down in order to enable the thin, fanless form factor that is being achieved here.
If most of the laptop vendors start transitioning their premium notebooks to fanless, Core M designs, then this means that laptops should actually get slower generation-on-generation.
Resetting the performance baseline
The interesting thing is that, as Intel likes to advertise in so many of its presentations, Core M based systems will still be significantly faster than several generation old systems. As a result, when the average consumer goes to upgrade an older, bulkier system, he or she could opt for the slick fanless alternative. It'll be slower than the systems that come with fans but still much faster than the older machine that is being replaced.
It seems that Intel is betting that mainstream consumer laptop buyers will eventually move in droves to Core M based systems as "thin and light" as well as "fanless" broadly outweigh demands for more performance. Systems that feature higher performance and power processors will of course continue to be sold, but "15 watt" processors will be the new "35 watt and above" -- increasingly irrelevant to most consumers.
If Intel can successfully move mainstream consumers to low-power Core M processors, then this should help to speed up the upgrade cycle as the systems become outdated sooner.
This playbook has been executed before
While reading this may trigger an "aha!" moment for some readers, this is an old-as-the-hills playbook in PCs. Remember the shift to 15-watt chips in mainstream laptops with Ultrabooks in 2011? Outside of professionals and "prosumers," judging by the laptop selections available on the Web and in retail that I have observed, there's little doubt that the vast majority of consumer laptop systems sold today feature 15-watt chips.
Performance within that 15-watt envelope has moved up over the last several years, but remember that the baseline performance that people expected was reset significantly with the first 15-watt chips. Intel is just doing it again, with the bar now set at 4.5 to 6 watts. Hooray for innovation?