On Tuesday, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) announced its next-generation Surface tablet known as the Surface 3. This is a full Windows 8.1 device running an Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Atom, which makes it significantly more exciting than the ARM-based Surface RT and Surface 2 that preceded it.
When the device ships in May, I expect websites such as iFixit will tear down one of these Surface 3 units, exposing many of the key components inside. I also expect the various tech review sites to run pretty extensive performance tests on the Surface 3. As an Intel investor, here's why I can't wait for both the teardown and review.
Who won the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth spot?
According to iFixit, the original Surface RT featured a Marvell (NASDAQ:MRVL) Wi-Fi chip. It's hard to find information on the Wi-Fi chip inside the Surface 2, but I suspect it is also a Marvell chip.
At the Mobile World Congress, Intel announced a whole lineup of low-power connectivity chips, including an 802.11ac Wi-Fi + Bluetooth combo chip. It would be interesting if Intel could essentially offer Microsoft an attractive "package deal" including the system-on-chip, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo, and LTE chip for the cellular models.
Why is this important?
For a behemoth like Intel, it might not seem that winning the connectivity chip spot inside the Microsoft Surface 3 (or any single design, really) is a big deal. In some sense, this is correct, but I'm thinking bigger picture here.
Intel doesn't have a history of releasing low-power connectivity chips, in contrast to competitors such as Marvell, Broadcom, and Qualcomm. A credible low-power Wi-Fi + Bluetooth combo chip could improve Intel's competitive positioning in not just tablets, but also in smartphones where customers are known to want to buy the entire platform (applications processor/baseband + connectivity) from a single supplier.
Indeed, Marvell executives said in a conference call in 2013 that a customer has "rarely" adopted the company's applications processor and modem solutions and not chosen Marvell's connectivity chips.
According to Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja, smartphone vendors, particularly in the low-end and midrange of the phone market, want as many chips as possible from a single vendor. This, according to Sutardja, is because if the customer has any issues with the platform, there's only "one neck to choke."
How does that Cherry Trail chip perform in the real world?
Intel's Cherry Trail chip will serve as its highest-end tablet processor offering for 2015, before it is replaced at some point in 2016. The company has said Cherry Trail provides improvements in both CPU and graphics performance (although the graphics enhancements are expected to be much more dramatic than the CPU enhancements).
I'm very interested to see how well Cherry Trail performs and what kind of power consumption and battery life it delivers. Not only will this be important in getting a sense of how Intel-based tablets stack up, but it will also give us insight into how Intel's low-cost Braswell system-on-chip for budget desktops and notebooks will perform.