Intel exec says Silvermont trumps ARM in power, performance

Intel executive Dadi Perlmutter responds to ARM's claims of processor superiority over Silvermont

Intel's executive vice president and general manager at Intel Architecture will give the keynote speech at Intel Developer Forum, which will be held in San Francisco between Sept. 11 and 13

Intel's executive vice president and general manager at Intel Architecture will give the keynote speech at Intel Developer Forum, which will be held in San Francisco between Sept. 11 and 13

A top Intel executive said the power and performance battle with ARM is over, because Intel's upcoming chips based on its Silvermont architecture are ahead on key metrics required to deliver strong performance and battery life on smartphones and tablets.

Intel's upcoming mobile chips based on the Silvermont are better at power and performance than ARM's fastest Cortex-A15 chips, said Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, in an interview at the Computex trade show this week.

"Cortex-A15 is not even close to Silvermont. They are higher power and much behind us on performance which means they are on the wrong scale," Perlmutter said.

The response comes after ARM at Computex claimed processor superiority over Intel, saying its processors are a generation ahead on performance and power draw. ARM made comments about processor superiority when it introduced the new Cortex-A12 processors targeted at smartphones and tablets from US$200 to $350.

"Based on what I've seen on [Cortex] A15 so far, which is the top of the line on performance, it's not anywhere near [Silvermont], not on performance, not on power," Perlmutter said.

Intel is trying to persuade consumers that smartphones and tablets with its chips can compete on battery life and performance with ARM-based mobile devices. ARM processors are used in most smartphones and tablets today, while a handful of mobile devices use Intel x86 chips. Intel hopes for a breakthrough with its low-power Atom chips based on Silvermont, which is the successor to the current Atom architecture. At Computex, Intel talked about the upcoming Bay Trail chip, which will go in tablets starting under US$199, and also showed a prototype smartphone based on its Merrifield chip, which will ship to device makers next year.

Battery life of mobile devices was at the center of the Intel and ARM debate at Computex. ARM's processors were originally designed for mobile devices, while Intel's mobile chips have been scaled down from power-hungry PC chips. As Intel reduces power leakage, ARM is now scaling up processor performance, pitting the two companies against each another in mobile phone, PC and server markets.

Many tablets were announced at Computex with ARM processors, but Intel notched up some tablet wins with its current Atom processors. Asus announced the Fonepad Note FHD6 "phablet" and Samsung separately announced the 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 3. But ARM said Intel's dominance lies in the PC market, which is declining partly due to growing use of smartphones and tablets for basic computing.

Perlmutter said that improved performance per watt on Silvermont chips comes through improved circuitry and power management. Silvermont chips will be made using a 22-nanometer process that introduces a more efficient 3D transistor structure to pack in more circuitry while reducing the size of a chip.

Intel has a manufacturing advantage over its rivals, and its performance per watt will get better with its mobile chips code-named Airmont next year, Perlmutter said

At the same time, Perlmutter said his eye will not move away from ARM.

"I never ignore competition. If they don't do a good job now, they will do a better job next time. But we are not going to stand still," Perlmutter said.

ARM aims to catch up with Intel on manufacturing, working with third-party chip makers Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and GlobalFoundries to get 3D transistors on chips over the next two years. ARM licenses its processor designs to companies such as Samsung Electronics, Apple, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia, which then get chips made by the contract manufacturers.

Going forward, more performance will be needed on chips with less power consumption, Perlmutter said. He rejected the idea of "good-enough" computing, saying tablets and smartphones could use more performance to make the user experience richer.

"This all requires computing. It's all going to be done in smaller form factors while not standing still on performance. It's just going to get better," Perlmutter said.

He said human interfaces, like voice interaction, gaming, 3D modeling and gesture recognition, will reach mobile computing devices someday. Intel will make mobile devices richer than just mundane e-mail and web browsing clients.

"Computers still struggle with basic voice recognition. Good enough computing? No way. It's good enough computing for what's being done today, but completely not good enough for where people will need to go," Perlmutter said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

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