IDF 2010: Intel banks on smart computing


  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 29 Sep 2010

SAN FRANCISCO: Intel president and chief operating officer Paul Otellini’s keynote set the tone at this year’s recently concluded Intel Developer Forum (IDF) here by stating that that the future lies in smart computing devices.

According to Otellini, some 2.8 million smart devices, which include smartphones and other devices. are currently on the market today and expected to double by 2014.

As such, there was a general shift in IDF from dealing specifically with hardware tailored for the desktop to offering solutions for a variety of devices.

Despite this, Otellini says that the PC is far from dead — in fact a million PCs are sold per day worldwide, and the market for PCs is still growing by some 18% per year.

He said a large part of the current growth in the PC market is driven by emerging markets and the shift to mobile.

Having a consistent experience from the PC to the smart device is central to Intel’s strategy in the future, said Otellini.

“Our vision is to create a continuum to allow seamless connection between desktop and mobile devices,” he said.

Of course, Intel’s vision of a seamless connection is a common platform of hardware devices based on Intel Architecture (IA), which the company is banking on to provide developers with an easy transition from one device to another because of the common x86 architecture.

Part of this strategy is to offer complete solutions that pair software with the company’s silicon.

As such, Intel has made a number of high-profile acquisitions — the company has spent nearly US$10bil (RM3.2bil) acquiring a number of companies, including Wind River (which makes software for embedded devices), Infineon’s Wireless Solutions business and most recently, antivirus maker, McAfee.

According to Otellini, Intel is today moving from being merely producing the silicon to becoming a solutions provider that delivers a full computing stack to its customers.

Sandy Bridge

Although there were no surprise hardware announcements, Otellini did give a sneak peek at Sandy Bridge, Intel’s upcoming second-generation Core processor that is due to be released early next year.

Sandy Bridge itself is a big deal for Intel and comes under “tock” in the company’s so-called tick-tock cadence, where minor revisions (the “tick”) are followed by major hardware redesigns (called “tock”).

Built on Intel’s 32nm process, the major feature of Sandy Bridge will be that the CPU core will now be integrated together with the GPU on the same piece of silicon, resulting in not only savings in power consumption but also an increase in performance which Otellini said would be “significant.”

Sandy Bridge is based on the Nehalem architecture found in the current Core i7 processor, but this new second-generation Core will also include a new instruction set called AVX, a redesigned memory controller for higher performance and, since the graphics core is now on the silicon, built-in DisplayPort support.

AVX, or Advanced Vector Extension (AVX), is a new instruction set integrated into the processor specifically to enhance floating-point calculations and should, amongst other things, increase the performance of multimedia-related operations.

Specifically, Otellini pointed out that the AVX instruction set will vastly improve facial recognition tracking and even computational simulation and analysis.

The integration of the graphics core onto the same piece of silicon will bring major benefits, since with the GPU now physically closer to the CPU and both sharing the same Last Level Cache (LLC), communication between the two is much faster.

In spite of both the CPU and GPU sharing the same LLC, Intel claims that tests have shown a greater performance gain, thanks to the ring architecture which manages how the various components of the processor communicate which each other. This ensures, amongst other things, that the GPU and CPU do not have to “fight” for memory when working together.

Intel also claims that the Sandy Bridge ring architecture design is laid out in a way that makes the processor modular and scalable — future processors can be scaled up to a lot more than four cores or even scaled down to just two and even allows for the GPU to be switched with different versions.

Otellini claimed that Sandy Bridge will significantly increase tasks like video encoding over the current Core i7 processor and proceeded to demonstrate a comparison between the two. However he declined to produce any hard performance numbers until the launch date of the new second-generation processor.

Apart from powering full desktop PCs and notebook computers, the integration of both the GPU and CPU onto the same piece of silicon means that even smaller all-in-one desktop designs are possible.

A little bit of Atom

The keynote on the second day of IDF was all about the Intel Atom processor and how it fits into the the so-called “compute continuum” that Intel is trying to create.

According to Doug Davis, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s Embedded and Communications Group, the company has shipped around 70 million Intel Atom processors since the the low-power processor was launched in April 2008.

He added that over 40% of that number was sold to customers new to Intel processors.

Davis showed off a number of current and upcoming devices powered by the Intel Atom processor, ranging from the most common denominator, the netbook, to home servers and even motorcycle diagnostic systems.

However the product which wow-ed the audience was the the Dell Inspiron Duo. Based on a Tablet design that looks much like Apple’s iPad, the Inspiron Duo has a unique trick up its sleeve — the screen can be flipped up to reveal a keyboard underneath.

While that in itself isn’t particularly unique — Windows-based Tablets have had rotating screens and keyboards for years — it’s the way the Inspiron Dual’s screen rotates within its frame that’s unusual.

Instead of a screen hinged at the top edge of the keyboard, the Inspiron Duo has hinges on the left and right edges of the screen, within the frame that surrounds it.

The main advantage of this design is that unlike the usual convertible Tablets, which look like a screen flipped around to sit on top of a keyboard, the Inspiron Duo’s design completely hides the keyboard and looks indistinguishable from a keyboard-less Tablet.

Central to Intel’s strategy of getting IA (Intel Architecture) into more devices, Davis introduced a number of new designs for the Atom specifically catering to the markets for which they are intended.

One of these is the Intel Atom E600 SoC (System-on-Chip), which is targeted at embedded applications such as in-vehicle infotainment systems for cars, smart grid devices and IP media phones.

The Atom E600 (formerly codenamed Tunnel Creek) SoC combines the Atom core, graphics engine, audio/video decoding engine and the memory controller onto a single chip.

The Atom E600 also has an open interconnect so that it can be paired with any PCI Express-compliant device, including those with a non-Intel chipset or almost any kind of component that supports PCI Express.

Also introduced was the Atom processor CE4200, which is designed specifically for consumer electronics products such as so-called “Smart TVs” — multimedia devices that offer video playback and Internet connectivity.

The CE4200 System-on-Chip features 3D-TV decoding and processing capabilities, and support for multi-stream high-definition decoding of MPEG2, H.264, MPEG4-2 and VC-1 formats.

In fact, “Smart TV” was the buzzword amongst Intel executives at IDF, where various companies demonstrated their versions of Smart TV running on the Atom processor platform.

While Google TV was one of the more prominent devices at the show, Sony, Logitech and D-Link showed off their versions as well.

Sony’s solution runs on the Atom platform and will be integrated into the company’s upcoming consumer HDTVs. Meanwhile D-Link introduced the Boxee, which is a set-top box.

Developers, developers

While there was a lot of emphasis on the Smart TV, Intel also announced a number of initiatives for the netbook and tablet computing market. The most notably announcement was that the Intel AppUp centre is now out of beta and live for Windows netbooks.

The AppUp centre is Intel’s answer to the Apple App Store, and it offers applications optimised specifically for Atom-based netbooks and nettops running Windows or MeeGo, the Linux distribution developed by Intel and Nokia.

However, while the Windows XP/7 version of the AppUp centre is available right now, the MeeGo version is yet to go live.

According to Renee J. James, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Software and Services Group, there are currently some 450,000 users for Intel AppUp, with some 23,000 developers working on applications for the store.

There are also a few major developers on board to create games for the AppUp centre, most notably Japanese software giants Namco, Konami and Sega, although no specific titles were revealed.

Barnes and Noble will also be offering its Nook e-book reader PC software for free on the AppUp centre.

James also announced that Intel would be running the first annual Intel AppUp developer event, called Intel AppUp Elements 2010, shortly after IDF.

The Intel AppUp Centre, which is the front-end for the AppUp store, will be pre-installed on a number of netbooks from major manufacturers in the near future, but can also be downloaded for free at www.intel.com/appup.

Related Stories: IDF 2010: Get in touch with your devices IDF 2010: A peek inside Intel Labs

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