Intel may have started out behind the eight ball in the tablet market, but Intel Israel’s team has helped the company catch up – in a hurry, said one of the company’s top engineers. Aviad Hevrony, the front end design manager for Intel Israel’s Cloverview team, Told the Times of Israel that Intel HQ counted on the 100-strong Israeli team to come up with a system on a chip (SoC) design that could be used in a lightweight tablet/convertible device — allowing use as a standard tablet, or attaching it to a keyboard for laptop-style use.
Intel Israel delivered, he said, and the result is a big win for Samsung, which last week released its ATIV tablet line, the world’s thinnest tablet powered by Windows 8, with the ability to run Android apps.
In an exclusive interview at Intel’s Jerusalem campus, Hevrony, along with other senior members of the engineering team, discussed the technical challenges involved in producing the system, their hopes for the future of Intel, and their pride at leading the company in what team members said could be a turning point in the tablet balance of power as Intel-powered tablets begin to present a formidable challenge to Apple, which still dominates the tablet market with its iPad line.
Apple’s lead has been seen by many analysts as practically unchallengeable, but the Intel team believes that as the market gets to know the Samsung tablets better — along with the even faster, thinner, and more capable designs the company is working on — consumers will respond accordingly.
Key to the development of tablets, netbooks, and light laptops are SoCs, the integrated circuits that use a single chip to provide most of the electronic, computing, memory, and basic software that a device needs to run. The SoC replaces individual chips, allowing devices to run with less energy, and enabling engineers to build smaller devices, since most of the chips that would otherwise be needed are replaced by the SoC.
Intel Israel has been working on SoC systems for over four years, said Hevrony. “At first we started with netbooks, which were seen as the next big thing for the market. But a year later the iPad came out, so we realized we had to get into tablet design.”
The team shifted gears and began to develop for tablets, using the new expanded Atom SoC standards developed by Intel to compete with others in the space.
That standard was called Cloverview, and as the team began working on the design, Intel began shopping it around to vendors, among them the usual suspects in device production, including Acer, Lenovo, Asus and Samsung. The Cloverview and Cloverview Plus SoC, completed in 2012, is already being used in dozens of devices.
But the toughest challenge was yet to come. Out of all the vendors, Samsung is probably the one that has its sights set highest, seeking to pose a real challenge to Apple. Encouraged by the positive market reception for its smartphones, Samsung has been seeking to unseat the iPad as the market leader — or at least pose a credible threat to it. Samsung released several tablets during 2012, all of which were lauded by critics but were not quite there just yet.
With its newest tablets, though, Samsung believes it has a winner: A tablet that can not only run Android apps but works as a Windows laptop/netbook, as well.
It was a great idea for Samsung and a great opportunity for Intel, which shopped its design to the Korean giant, winning the contract for the SoC. But in the SoC world, the more ambitious the promise made by top brass, the more of a challenge for the nuts-and-bolts engineers charged with fulfilling those promises.
“The challenge was definitely a formidable one,” said Hevrony. “We had to come up with a fast SoC that ran at relatively low power, designing it from start to finish in less than two years. But even more challenging was the fact that we had to make it work with Windows, supporting hardware and software that a PC user would use.”
This, in a sense, was the most difficult part of the equation, per instructions from Microsoft headquarters, said Roman Biberman, the team’s Cloverview pre-silicon verification lead. Last year, Microsoft released two versions of Windows — 8 and RT — and while the adoption rate (the number of customers migrating from previous versions of Windows) for the former has not been great, critics have slammed the latter for its lack of support for legacy hardware and software.
“When we say that our SoC can run Windows 8, that implies it can do everything Windows 8 can do, supporting everything the operating system supports, even on a computer,” said Biberman. “We had to check for even relatively rare use cases — such as using a USB headphone that connects to a USB hub.”
You might not think you’d need that for a device that has a standard 3.5 mm audio jack compatible with all standard headphones, as well as Bluetooth capabilities to allow Bluetooth headphone use — but the team needed to test for that, regardless. “If it has the Windows symbol on it, you have to support all peripherals,” said Alex Gruzman, the Cloverview team’s head of infrastructure and design automation.
Supporting those peripherals also required a rethink of power management, usually the bane of small devices. The more a device can do, the more power it requires, and the bigger a battery is needed, but the bigger the battery, the heavier and thicker the device is. That wasn’t an option, as Samsung and other vendors using Cloverview were searching for a lighter option than the iPad. The only way around that is to optimize power management — meaning to efficiently allocate the power that the device’s battery provides in a way that will maximize the time the device can be used.
Intel, as well as other companies, has been working on power management for devices for a long time, and the Israel team was able to leverage previous advances (such as those in the Medfield devices, the system used in devices before the release of Cloverview) to maximize power use in the new system.
But since the Windows world is so vast, said Gruzman, the team had to be very careful in its power management work. “Basically we had to come up with a reference design for vendors that would support everything, and combinations of everything,” he said. “Vendors don’t know what the customers are going to do with their devices, and they may decide not to support all uses, peripherals, or behaviors, but from our point of view we had to be ready for all possibilities.”
The result, said Hevrony, was a system that the team could be very proud of, and one that Samsung chose over the alternatives, such as the chips from Qualcomm and Marvell based on designs from ARM (Advanced Risc Machines) that have been used in a plethora of phones and devices.
“Some analysts are saying that the use of an Intel SoC constitutes the beginning of an ‘alliance’ between Samsung and Intel against Apple,” said Hevrony. “As an engineer I of course can’t comment on that, but as the new tablets are a flagship product for Samsung, it seems to me that this was an important decision for them.”
And the fact that Intel Israel was the lead for the development of the SoC shows the confidence of the home office in the local talent. “The development was not solely Israeli; other teams, especially in Bangalore India, Folsom, California, and Austin Texas, were deeply involved,” said Hevrony. For example, he said, verification was handled in Israel in the lab headed by Rani Ayalon, pre-silicon verification manager, but the validation was done in Bangalore, collaborating with Avshalom Mizrahi, head of the validation lab in Israel.
“In this project especially there were no borders,” said Gruzman. “We did a lot of traveling between offices, and there was a good feeling of family between all of us.”
But the imprimatur of the Israeli team is clearly there, said Hevrony. “We are global citizens of Intel, but we are also very proud to strengthen Intel Israel, and especially Intel Jerusalem. We have some 600 workers here in all the departments, and the more successful we are, the better it reflects on all of us here.”
And the system has indeed been successful so far. “I have yet to read a negative review of our SoC,” said Hevrony. “Everyone seems to like the new Samsung devices. We worked hard, put in a lot of late nights, but in the end we accomplished what we set out to do, on schedule. It’s not just about technology — it’s about people power, the capable and intelligent team we have here that may just have helped bring about a revolution in the tablet market.”