Usually, engineers slaving away in the R&D labs of big tech companies don’t get a chance to see their work at work – unless they wander into an electronics store where customers are trying out their products. In an effort to correct this disconnect, Intel last week held an event for its Israeli worker ants to experience the glamour and glitz of the major product rollouts the company puts on at big tech events, like CES in Las Vegas and Computex in Taiwan.
For engineers, it was an opportunity to revisit the long hours they put into developing Intel’s latest and greatest devices — the technology for many of which was developed in large part by Israeli teams. Intel may be late to the game, but it was determined to pull ahead in the fierce competition for domination of the device market — and Israeli teams were key to this effort, company officials said.
Lined up on a stage at a convention center adjacent to Intel’s Haifa campus were a bevy of laptops, tablets, “phablets,” two-in-one hybrid netbooks/tablets, handheld devices, smartphones, gaming devices — even TV sets, all with “Intel Inside” technology. Yoav Hochberg, director of Strategic Planning for Intel Haifa’s Microprocessor Group and “master of ceremonies” for the first half of the show, pointed out Intel’s recent and upcoming innovations, describing the technologies that power them and, even more importantly for the audience, relating which local team worked on those technologies. The hundreds of engineers in the audience responded with recognition and appreciation.
The bottom line for Intel, and for consumers, is that the company is on the crux of a major revolution and shift in the device business. If the cool device for 2012 was the iPad, the new devices that are to be marketed by companies like Sony, Lenovo, Asus, Samsung, and other laptop and tablet makers will redefine the meaning of “cool,” according to Hochberg.
A big part of the revolution, said Hochberg, will be choice. “We have over 50 designs of Ultrabooks coming onto the market,” said Hochberg. “You can have a device that works as an ultra-light laptop, that separates into a tablet and automatically works on Android, and switches to Windows 8 when it is ‘reunited’ with its keyboard component.”
Not only that, said Hochberg, but “you can also have any design you want — a device where the screen twists, flips, or slides in and out. We engineered the entire design from top to bottom to ensure a maximum of flexibility and consumer choice, to the extent that we even redesigned the hinges on these two-in-one devices to ensure they lasted a long time. With the two-in-one Ultrabook line, you no longer have to choose between a laptop and a tablet.”
It’s easier to watch videos on a tablet than on a laptop, but harder to do a spreadsheet on one, he said. “In between there was a black hole, but we have succeeded in filling it.”
Ultrabooks were first introduced in 2011, Hochberg noted, but didn’t really take off, “because we were missing some key components,” like battery life, weight, and compatibility with legacy equipment. But thanks to the hard work of Intel teams, many of them based in Jerusalem and Haifa, the Ultrabook line was finally ready for prime time.
A good example of the game-changing technology, said Hochberg, was the new line of Samsung two-in-one devices, which, as revealed in an interview with The Times of Israel last week, were using the Cloverview system on a chip (SoC), based on the Haswell platform, designed by a team led by Intel’s Jerusalem engineers.
“The Haswell SoC provides enough power for a full day of work or play on our devices — that battery has enough juice to let you watch three full-length movies on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York, with plenty of power left over,” Hochberg said.
In fact, said Hochberg, a huge breakthrough — likely to come out in the next year or so, as Intel puts the finishing touches on its Merrifield and Bay Trail SoC platforms (based on the newer Silvermont architecture), using Intel’s 22 nanometer “3D” (tri-gate) chips — will be fanless devices, whose systems will run at such low power that fans won’t be needed to cool down the processor.
The new Intel systems will need such a small amount of power (six watts, compared to the 35 watts that Intel’s original Centrino laptop line required), said Hochberg, that “with Silvermont, the device will have three times the peak performance of the previous generation of chips, or be able to operate in a standard mode, but at only 20% of the power than what was needed just a couple of years ago.” Because of the performance improvements, Intel will be able to add even more advanced features into its chipsets — gestures, facial recognition, voice assistance, and more.
The same low power/high performance/flexibility philosophy extends to other product lines Intel introduced this year, like the “phablet,” a combination smartphone and tablet, and full-sized “adaptive” desktop computers (also called “all-in-ones”) – except these won’t be desktops as we know them, but more like big tablets, with full touch capabilities, and a wide array of networking and communications capability. “You’ll be able to use it upright as you would a desktop, typing a Bluetooth keyboard, or lying flat, using touch,” said Hochberg. Much improved graphics on the Haswell devices (50% better than last year’s Ivy Bridge platform devices), and even better graphics planned for Silvermont devices, complete the package.
Both the adaptive desktops and two-in-ones will feature new Thunderbolt connection technology (also mostly developed in Israel), designed to replace USB — much faster, and allowing the stringing of numerous peripherals using a single cable. “Imagine being able to use a screen, scanner, external hard drive or whatever and needing only one cable,” said Hochberg. A combination Wifi/Bluetooth chip — also developed in Israel — will allow more efficient communications, and lighter devices as well, he added.
Then there are the smart TVs Intel is working on – at this point, mostly for Samsung (but other companies are set to come out with Intel-compatible models in the coming months). The smart TV revolution will be fueled by two key Intel developments, said Hochberg — communications, and superior graphics capabilities, which will be built into both Intel devices and TV sets. Intel Haswell and Silvermont devices have built into them Intel Wireless Display (WIDI) technology, which lets users wirelessly display the content on their device to a TV set. Thus, if a user is watching a program on-line at Hulu.com, they will simply be able to transmit it to the TV set — an elegant solution, said Hochberg, and a lot more elegant than previous attempts to connect TV sets to the Internet, which required boxes, cables, and phone wires.
But the biggest component in this revolution, said Hochberg – and probably the one that consumers will like the most – will be the price revolution. “The powerful Bay Trail devices, including phones, tablets, and two-in-ones, will start at $199.” Not long ago, companies selling Intel-inside tablets and notebooks could not sell them for less than $899, but because of the improvements in power, manufacturing efficiency, scaling, and other factors, Intel was able to manufacture at a price that would let manufacturers using its technology to sell for much less. “The myth than Intel is too expensive is rapidly evaporating,” said Hochberg.
There was plenty of ooh-ing and aah-ing from the audience at the event, which at times resembled a revival. In a recent interview, Aviad Hevrony, the front-end design manager for Intel Israel’s Cloverview team, told The Times of Israel that Intel had started out at a disadvantage in the tablet market, which is where most growth in device sales has been in the last few years – and Intel (with the help of his team in Jerusalem) has been playing a serious game of catch-up.
In the absence of Intel domination, other companies — notably ARM (Advanced Risc Machines) — have managed to ensconce themselves as the dominant players in the new era of devices. Benchmark reviews, user opinions, and professional evaluations on a plethora of websites dedicated to hardware give Haswell devices a big thumbs up, to the extent that “we haven’t seen even one bad review,” said Hevrony. Surely, though, ARM and Intel’s other competitors are at their drawing boards, working to come up with something to one-up the work done by Hevrony’s team, and others at Intel centers in Israel and around the world.
But Hochberg is optimistic Intel can yet win this. “We’ve done our homework. All the polls and market research we have done show that consumers like the two-in-one approach, that they are excited by our technologies, and the choice we are offering in form factors,” Hochberg said. “This excitement is already making itself felt in sales – just like what happened when we first came out with the Centrino laptops, which swept the world of computing by strong. The same thing is beginning to happen now. We are the cusp of a revolution, of remaking the laptop and tablet to fit the 21st century.”