As readers may be aware, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) revealed its first new Atom core, codenamed Silvermont, back in May 2013. At that time, Intel talked up its renewed vigor for its Atom product line and "promised" yearly upgrades of its Atom core. To investors -- at the very least, to me -- it seemed that Intel was finally going to treat Atom like a first-class citizen and deliver leadership for low-power processor cores.
Silvermont was a solid performer and offered nice, low power consumption when it first hit the market in late 2013, and industry watchers widely expected Intel would follow this CPU core up with a core called Airmont in 2014. However, thanks to delays in the company's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, the first products based on Airmont won't show up in the marketplace until this year.
And now, the first publicly available performance numbers for the Airmont core have finally hit the Web, so let's dig in.
Look what showed up in the Geekbench database
A popular benchmark in the mobile processor world is a test known as Geekbench 3. There is heated debate regarding the test's validity in assessing "real world" performance, but nevertheless, it can provide a fairly decent comparison of the relative improvement, generation on generation, from Silvermont to Airmont.
Interestingly enough, Cherry Trail (based on the Airmont core) showed up in the Geekbench database. Let's take a look at how the Cherry Trail chip, which the benchmark claims is running at 1.60GHz, compares with a quad-core Silvermont running at 2.33GHz:
According to the test, the Airmont core in this particular platform is 2.3% faster on a per-core basis and about 10.6% faster when all four cores are being used.
Now, leaks have suggested that the Airmont CPU core as part of the Cherry Trail platform will run at 2.7GHz maximum frequency. So, this might initially lead one to believe that at "full" performance, the Cherry Trail will perform significantly better. However, if we were to scale the results of the "1.6GHz" Cherry Trail to 2.7GHz, we'd get about 1500 for the single-core score and 4915 for the multicore score.
This would be too large of an improvement to expect generation on generation (that multicore score is roughly in-line with an Ultrabook-oriented Broadwell chip), so my guess is that the "1.6GHz" refers to the base frequency and that the chip can "turbo" up to a higher frequency if the thermal headroom exists. This is exactly what the Silvermont core inside of the Atom Z3580 tested here does. (Although Intel does not publish the base clocks for the Z3580, the Atom Z3795 -- built on the same process and using the same core -- runs at a base clock of 1.59GHz and can turbo to 2.39GHz.)
Airmont looks like a mere die-shrink of Silvermont
Although we should wait for final production tablet performance numbers to be sure, these initial numbers don’t suggest a large improvement for Airmont over Silvermont. This is very reminiscent of the Haswell to Broadwell transition for Intel’s big-core line, where Broadwell offered minimal architectural enhancements over Haswell, with the performance-per-watt gains seemingly coming from the transition to the more advanced 14-nanometer manufacturing technology.
While this should be "good enough" for the company's Braswell processor for low-end PCs and for midrange tablet chips, I think Intel will need the next generation core -- known as Goldmont -- in order to make real strides against the competition in the high end of the mobile market.
Remember that Intel did downplay Cherry Trail/Airmont at its 2013 investor meeting and told investors that the Goldmont-based Broxton would be the part to bring "leadership performance" in the mobile market. Given these initial performance numbers, it's not hard to see why.
On the bright side, I do think Airmont should be a good core for the 14-nanometer low-cost highly integrated SoFIA chips that Intel plans to bring to market in 2016.