Today at CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, Intel offered its vision for the next wave of microchip-based digital innovations.
The story begins with Intel's latest generation of microprocessors. Intel notes that its first "9th Gen" Core desktop processors launched in October. Systems incorporating this range of CPUs will be appearing now and continuing to roll out steadily through Q2.
Looking far beyond this milestone, Intel talked about some of its many ongoing developments, including some that are still quite distant-looking. The company's activities are far too diverse and complex to detail in full, but here are some of the high points.
"In the coming months," Intel plans to launch a new mobile PC platform based on its first volume-production 10nm processor, codenamed ‘Ice Lake.' Intel has been slow out of the gate with the 10nm process, its current ‘9th Generation' CPU chips still stuck at 14nm while other chipmakers (such as Samsung) were offering 10nm products as early as 2017. (There is some debate about how the die size is measured.)
Ice Lake, in turn, will be the first platform to deliver Intel's new Gen 11 integrated graphics (GPU) architecture. This will more than double the number of graphics ‘execution units,' making on-chip graphics far more capable, and possibly rendering discrete graphics adapters much less necessary for mainstream gaming. Gen 11 will also offer more support for high-resolution video encoding and decoding, to support 4K and 8K content while keeping power usage low.
Equally important, the supporting ‘chipsets' for Ice Lake will be Intel's first to integrate Thunderbolt 3 and Wi-Fi 6. This will simplify system designs, and help make these connectivity standards the new baseline. At the same time, the 10nm process will bring temperatures down and move battery life up.
Intel says we should look for Ice Lake devices from its OEM partners on the shelves by holiday 2019.
Intel is also working on an entirely new platform, codenamed ‘Lakefield,' based on its Foveros 3D chip-design technology. This approach offers a chance to build chips upward instead of outward, potentially yielding significant efficiencies. Initial Lakefield CPUs will have 5 cores and very low power usage, allowing OEMs "more flexibility for thin and light form factor design." Presumably, Intel's hope is to carve out more of a presence in the phone, tablet and/or IoT markets, where the ARM architecture (from various chipmakers) has tended to dominate.
Intel states that Lakefield processors should be in production "this year," but doesn't offer any estimate as to when user products might appear in stores.
Another development aimed at mobile applications is codenamed Snow Ridge. This is a line of 10nm ‘system on a chip' (SoC) designs, "developed specifically for 5G wireless access and edge computing. Intel says that Snow Ridge is expected to be available in the second half of 2019. But, again, that refers to the chips, not to end-product devices.
Intel's Project Athena, on the other hand, isn't dependent on specific hardware innovations. It's described as an "innovation program" aimed at creation of "a new class of advanced laptops." (Presumably, an extension of Intel's work in promoting the ‘Ultrabook' specification.) Athena will include an annually-updated spec outlining platform requirements, as well as a certification process for products eventually coming to market. Partners in the program include all of the major laptop OEMs.
Goals for Project Athena devices include: minimizing the time from when the lid is opened to when the device is ready for action; adding "artificial intelligence" to "proactively assist, filter, adapt and optimize" the system; greatly extending battery life; making wireless connection more automatic and reliable; and enabling effortless transformation in form factor (illustrated by an icon showing the typical configurations of a hinged convertible).
A more technical project ongoing at Intel is the development of a new Nervana Neural Network Processor for Inference (NNP-I). This class of chip is intended to accelerate operation of data-analytics ‘learning systems' (often misleadingly referred to as ‘AI'). Not surprisingly, Intel mentions that Facebook is one of its key development partners on this.
Another collaboration underway is with US telco Comcast, "laying the foundation to deliver new immersive experiences in the home." The aim is to deliver faster connectivity, including a globa standard for 10Gbps data transmission.
All of this shows Intel at an interesting juncture. It has cornered the personal computing market, dominating all three major software architectures: Windows, Mac OS and GNU/Linux. But that market has become increasingly saturated, with a limited appetite for ever-more-powerful processors. (Gaming and ‘content creation' being the two notable exceptions.) Meanwhile, the more lively mobile and IoT markets have remained largely beyond Intel's grasp.
Intel's roadmap highlights just how wide it's reach has become. This is a technological juggernaut, with capabilities matched by few other global players. The question now is, which of its projects are likely to open up the new commercial opportunities needed to keep fueling it growth.
Image: Intel Lakefield development prototype.