Intel is feeling pressure from the changes in the market – especially from the iPad, which doesn’t use Intel components. In response, Intel has created a line of products that function as both tablets and laptops – with a lot of help from the company’s Jerusalem engineering team.
While “Intel Inside” is a term that applies to most of the desktop computers, servers, and laptops sold, it doesn’t apply to what has emerged as the most important market segment of computing today – the tablet market, in which Apple’s iPad reigns supreme. The iPad and many other tablets use processors made by ARM Holdings – and considering that tablets, and especially iPads, are outselling laptops, Intel has been feeling some pain from the current market situation.
But the company isn’t taking the present situation lying down, and to compete, Intel has created a new range of products that it believes will prove to be even more popular than tablets. The new Intel-Inside “two-in-one” devices function as a laptop, but also convert automatically into a tablet when the screen part of the laptop is detached from the keyboard/processor part. Not only that – but the devices, available from manufacturers like Dell, Asus, Acer, HP, Lenovo, and even Microsoft, run both Windows (8.1) when the screen/keyboard are attached, and the Android operating system when the device is detached and the screen is running in tablet mode.
All the devices use Intel’s system-on-a-chip (SoC) Baytrail processor, benchmarked at double the processor speed and triple the graphics power of last year’s Clovertrail tablet processor. Besides being more powerful, the Baytrail processors use less energy, too – meaning that they last longer on a battery charge, as long as 8-10 hours, depending on usage (and comparable to the iPad Air).
Much of the engineering to make Baytrail what it is was done in Israel. Although there was a worldwide effort involving teams in numerous countries, said Aviad Heverony, the lead engineer of Intel Jerusalem’s Baytrail team, most of the work was done in Israel and Austin, Texas, with the Israeli team responsible for audio, integration of USB, SATA and many other components of the Baytrail SoC.
Intel’s engineering triumph is all the greater when you examine the challenges that accompanied its mission, Hevrony said in an exclusive interview, along with Roni Ayalon (head of presilicon verification at Intel Jerusalem) and Daniel Greenspan (who leads the Israeli SoC architecture team). Originally, they said, Baytrail was meant to be a netbook processor. Netbooks, of course, were those smaller versions of laptops that were essentially wiped out as a product category when the iPad was introduced. Once that happened, “corporate decided to refocus the project to develop components for a tablet, and we had to do a major redirection.” That redirection involved significantly reducing energy use, increasing power, and reducing the size of components significantly to ensure that they could fit in a tablet.
It also placed the Israeli team in the spotlight, said Hevrony, as there was a great deal of pressure to reduce the size of the components they were responsible for, while enhancing their performance; as entertainment devices, the audio and peripheral components of tablets become much more important than they would have been in a netbook.
Perhaps the greatest engineering issue was ensuring that the devices be light, have a long battery life – and be fully compatible with both Windows 8.1 and the latest Android operating systems. For the Israeli team, which was responsible for peripherals, the challenge was especially difficult – ensuring that all peripherals made for Windows and Android, present and past, worked with the devices. “Backwards compatibility in peripherals and software is a major issue for consumers, and if these devices are to be adopted by consumers we have to make sure they work in the way they expect them to,” said Hevrony.
But Intel pulled it off – in spades, the team said. “We have a super-fast SoC that has benchmarked very well against the competition (i.e., the iPad), and is very low power (7 watts),” said Hevrony. And they pulled it off on time – i.e., in time for this year’s holiday gift season, with dozens of Baytrail-powered devices – laptops, tablets, and combinations thereof – now available in stores. To the team, it’s almost a miracle.
Now, all Intel has to do is convince the consumer. Actually, that’s the job of the manufacturers using the Intel processor; Intel can’t be seen as favoring one of its “children” over others, so the team is rooting for all the companies making devices with its technology. “It’s no secret that Intel is in catch-up mode,” said Ayalon. “In the last few years there has been a realization that we have to do more to remain a leader in the market” – or, in the case of tablets, to become one. “It’s a complicated environment,” said Hevrony. “Apple, as a vertical, can create its own ecosystem with its own rules, while Intel has to deal with many other players.”
Intel’s ecosystem is evolving, but the team has high hopes for the success of Baytrail devices, said Hevrony. “The Clovertrail devices cost about $700, but the more powerful Baytrail devices are going to be more in the $400 range (around what he paid for the Asus device, which can be used as a laptop or just a tablet, and automatically switches between Android and Windows, depending on how it is used), and even less, from what manufacturers have told us,” he said. “In the end, we believe that customers will choose whatever best fits their needs – but remember, those needs include form factor and price, both things Intel can do much better than Apple can.”