Intel Digs Deeper Into 14nm Broadwell-Y SoC for Ultrathin Laptops

A month ahead of IDF, Intel officials talk about the technological challenges of reducing the size of the chip while driving PC innovation.

Intel Broadwell

HILLSBORO, Oregon—Intel executive Rani Borker paced in the front of the room sporting a small button pinned to her that read "I Love My Llama."

While Borker, vice president and general manager of Intel's Product Development Group, spoke, the 15 or so journalists and analysts seated in front of her passed around Llama Mountain, a 2-in-1 reference design created by Intel and demonstrated at the Computex 2014 conference in June to show off the kinds of thin and light form factors that will be enabled by the chip maker's upcoming Core M "Broadwell Y" system-on-a-chip (Soc) architecture.

At a recent workshop held at Intel's campus here, company officials and engineers talked about the design challenges that had to be overcome to create an SoC that was powerful enough, small enough and energy-efficient enough to run the very thin (9mm or less) and very light fanless two-in-one form factors that Intel was aiming for.

It meant innovating on multiple parts of the chip, from improving the power delivery system and shrinking the board area to reworking the 3D Tri-Gate transistor technology, improving the graphics capabilities and increasing the battery life, according to Borker.

"Across the board, there are a lot of changes," she said. "There wasn't just one thing. We really attacked the processor at every single level."

According to Intel officials, the results are pretty good. With Core M, Intel and its OEM partners will be able to offer fanless two-in-one devices—which can be used as either a traditional PC or as a tablet—based on a 14-nanometer SoC design that comes in a package that is 50 percent smaller and 30 percent thinner than the current "Haswell-Y" chip and offers 60 percent lower idle power, which will increase the system's battery life. The 14nm design also offers twice the performance-per-watt of previous Intel chips.

Core M also offers twice the reduction in the thermal design power over the current Haswell version, and improved performance.

Intel officials are looking to the Core M as a key part of the company's strategy to drive two-in-ones and other new PCs form factors into a market that is beginning to see some stabilization after a few years of contracting sales as more money and attention were spent on tablets and smartphones. The company initially expected to begin shipping the x86 chips in late 2013, with Broadwell-powered products hitting the market in the first half of this year. Manufacturing issues delayed shipments of the SoCs, but CEO Brian Krzanich said in May that the chips would be shipped in time to enable OEMs to bring systems to the market for the holiday shopping season.

Sanjay Natarajan, vice president and director of 14nm technology development at Intel, said the new chips are being shipped to OEMs now, and are being produced in fabrication facilities in Oregon and Arizona now, with more production coming next year in Ireland. The rate of usable chips coming out of the fabs is healthy enough to support the multiple 14nm Broadwell products that will be shipping in the first half of 2015, Natarajan said.

More details about Broadwell-Y will be released at the Intel Developer Forum next month in San Francisco, but the Intel officials at the workshop here focused more on the technological challenges that had to be overcome not only to continue shrinking the silicon, but making sure it could support the types of devices they wanted to see come into the market.

The company used an "outside-in" approach, deciding first what form factors they wanted to support—in this case, two-in-ones that are 9mm or less in thickness and do not need fans to keep them cool—and then engineering the SoC to meet those demands, according to Stephan Jourdan, an Intel Fellow and director of SoC architecture for the Platform Development Group.

"Without [the] 14-nanometer [manufacturing process], we would not have been able to reach those fanless designs," Jourdan said.