Intel Readies New Silvermont Atom Architecture

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-04-30

Intel Readies New Silvermont Atom Architecture

Intel, as it prepares to unveil its next-generation Core “Haswell” chip for tablets and notebooks in early June, is reportedly preparing to outline the new architecture that will be the underpinning of upcoming low-power Atom chips that will begin appearing in devices later this year.

Intel officials are expected to talk about the “Silvermont” architecture at an event at the company’s Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters May 6. Silvermont represents the first new architecture for the Atom platform since it was introduced in 2008 and targeted at the now passé netbook.

Since that time, Intel executives have rapidly expanded Atom’s reach, making it the platform for not only many of its tablet plans and smartphones, but also for embedded devices and even low-power microservers. Silvermont will be the next-generation architecture for upcoming chips like the 22-nanometer “Bay Trail” for tablets and other devices running both Microsoft’s Windows 8 and Google’s Android operating systems, and for “Merrifield,” which will go into smartphones.

It also will be the architecture for “Avoton,” which will succeed “Centerton” in microservers such as Hewlett-Packard’s Project Moonshot systems.

Silvermont is expected to bring greater performance and lower power to the Bay Trail chips, which Intel officials are hoping will help the vendor make inroads into a tablet market where most of the devices currently run on ARM-designed chips made by the likes of Qualcomm, Samsung and Nvidia. The chips, which will include higher end Intel graphics capabilities, also could be a boon for Windows 8 tablets, which still lag far behind those devices running Android and Apple’s iOS.

Analysts have been critical of the performance of ARM-based tablets running Microsoft’s Windows RT OS.

Intel officials have said tablets, hybrids and convertible devices powered by the quad-core Bay Trail system-on-a-chips (SoCs) will appear before the holiday shopping season and help drive down tablet prices to as low as $200.

Smartphones powered by Merrifield are expected to hit the market early next year.

Analysts at Strategy Analytics said in an April 25 report that of the 40.6 million tablets shipped in the first quarter, 48 percent ran iOS, while 43 percent ran Android. Windows held a 7.5 percent market share. The 40.6 million tablets shipped represented a 117 percent increase over the 18.7 million shipped during the same period in 2012.

Though Microsoft saw a 7.5 percent market share, it was hindered by limited distribution, a shortage of top-tier apps and confusion in the market, according to Strategy Analytics.

Not all analysts saw that number as a bad sign for either Microsoft or Intel. Ross Seymore, research analyst with Deutsche Bank, said in a research note April 26 that Windows 8 “did surprisingly well” considering it had no market share a year earlier.

Seymore also noted that Intel powered more than 90 percent of all the Windows-based tablets, and that its chip strategy has the company poised to grow its market share against ARM. He said that Intel’s current “Cover Trail” SoCs are helping drive tablet prices to as low as $449, and that Bay Trail will help lower prices even more. The chips “offer comparable performance and power efficiency” as the ARM chips and give OEMs a solid alternative to ARM SoCs, Seymore said.

Intel Readies New Silvermont Atom Architecture

Any gains in the booming tablet market would be good for Intel, which is still being hit hard by the slowing global PC market. Seymore said Intel will be further helped when tablets and other devices running Bay Trail chips hit the market later this year.

“We note Intel had essentially no presence in tablets in 2012 and therefore any presence in 2013/14 yields share gains and a revenue generator to at least partially offset weakness in the traditional PC market,” he wrote. “We continue to believe [Intel’s] ability to profitability address these next-generation computing form factors (tablets, convertibles, etc.) is underestimated by investors.”

Intel executives themselves have been vocal about their expectation for the market, saying during an April 16 conference call with analysts and journalists to discuss first-quarter financial numbers that they expect tablet chip shipments to double in the second quarter on the strength of the Clover Trail chips for Windows 8 tablets and “Lexington” SoCs for Android devices.

However, Seymore said that overall tablet shipments for the quarter will likely be flat from the first quarter to the second—with Apple iPad numbers down sharply—which “implies significant market share gains for Intel.”

Stephen Belanger, an analyst with Technology Business Research, is less optimistic about Intel’s chances in the tablet space. In a research note April 16, Belanger said that Intel’s more energy-efficient processors—including Haswell, Bay Trail and the "Clover Trail+” Atom chips—will help the company better compete with ARM.

"However, sales of the next generation of Intel-powered PCs will be threatened by weak demand and uncertainty surrounding Windows 8 adoption," he said.

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