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1/9/2013
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Intel Outlines Smartphones, Ultrabooks Vision At CES

Intel unveils a variety of new chips at CES 2013 to gain ground as market shifts increasingly toward mobile devices.

Nobody would be surprised if Intel started paraphrasing Mark Twain, who famously quipped, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Intel, a longtime tech industry leader, has seen its dominance in personal computing challenged by the rise of smartphones and tablets, prompting some some to question whether its reign might be usurped by the ARM processors found in many of today's mobile devices.

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Intel's clearly not in imminent danger; PCs might have faded in importance but they've hardly disappeared, and Intel's chips still fuel not only most of the world's servers but a variety of other devices in the emerging Internet of Things. At the Consumer Electronics Show, however, the company suggested that mobility won't force it to relinquish its spot at the top, regardless of what happens to traditional computers. Though less flashy than some of the show's other announcements, Intel's unveiling of several energy-efficient chips shows the company is making meaningful progress in the mobile arena. The new processors don't guarantee the company's continued dominance but they at least show that Intel can't be discounted.

Intel's announcements included the Atom Z2420 chip, codenamed Lexington, a chip intended for smartphones in emerging markets, which is probably a good way for Intel to gain ground. The decline of growth in the consumer electronics business in developed markets has been a theme at CES, and though smartphones have performed relatively well in these regions compared to, say, televisions or video game consoles, North America and Western Europe aren't seen as ripe with potential.

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Lexington offers dual-SIM support, can achieve speeds up to 1.2 GHz, encodes or decodes 1080p video at up to 30 frames per second (fps) and facilitates camera burst shooting at up to 7 fps. Unlike previous Atom chips, the new model will support both Windows and Android.

On the phone and tablet front, the company also announced the Clover Trail+ line, a dual-core architecture with Intel's Hyper-Threading technology. Intel claims the new offering will double the performance of the current-generation chips while maintaining similarly competitive battery life. Lenovo's K900, a 5.5-inch smartphone debuted during CES, sports the new silicon.

More significant, though, was information about the next-gen Atom processor, Bay Trail. The new SoC (system on a chip) is developed from a 22nm process and is the first chip in its family to boast a quad-core design. Intel said the chip will deliver more than twice the performance of current offerings while delivering all-day battery life. It should start shipping in tablets around the holiday season.

Turning to Core family chips, Intel surprised with a new version of its third-generation, or Ivy Bridge, chipset that runs at 7 watts, drawing around half the power of the current Ivy Bridge models. Ars Technica has questioned the veracity of this claim but Intel representatives were effusive about the new line, claiming it would stimulate a new wave of innovative Ultrabook designs.

Speaking of Ultrabooks, the company showed off a reference design called North Cape, a 13-inch tablet that docks into a keyboard and runs on Intel's forthcoming fourth-generation Core chip, codenamed Haswell. Because both the keyboard and the tablet have batteries, the device is advertised as offering up to 13 hours of juice when docked and up to 10 hours when detached. It also includes a "virtual bezel" that is almost non-existent when the keyboard is attached but that re-sizes the screen to 11.6 inches when in tablet mode, offering users an area for gripping the unit.

Intel didn't offer much in the way of additional Haswell specs, but it did declare that once Haswell arrives, the Ultrabook standard will require not only touch capabilities but also WiDi support, which allows users to easily and wirelessly push content from a computer to an external display, such as a television. The company additionally claimed the processors would offer the best generation-over-generation boost in battery life in the company's history. The chips are also expected to make Ultrabooks more accessible, bringing prices below $600.

Navin Shenoy, VP and GM of Intel's Mobile Client Platforms, said in an interview, "We feel very good about where we are," noting that the company only entered the smartphone market a year ago and has already shown that it can offer battery life and performance that equals or betters that of its competitors. He pointed to partnerships with Acer, Safaricom and Lava as signs of Intel's momentum in emerging markets.

He also said the new 7-watt Ivy Bridge chips are significant, pointing at devices such as the $799 Lenovo Yoga introduced during CES. "They couldn't build this product at 11 inches with an Intel chip until we drove that power reduction," he said. "It's a great example of this new convertible wave that we think is gonna be a big deal."

Though Ultrabooks and Windows 8 haven't overwhelmed the market to date, Shenoy remained bullish on the platform, pointing out that OEMs have now produced more than 140 designs. Calling the ultrathin computers "the tip of the spear," he credited the devices for driving sleeker, more attractive form factors into laptops of all stripes. "We've totally driven the market to slim," he stated.

Ultrabooks could also get a boost in the enterprise, he suggested, thanks to the mandatory WiDi support. He said that a pro-aimed version of the technology is coming, stating that it would allow users to securely and wirelessly push presentations from their computers to projectors.

Though mobile devices -- whether phones, tablets or Ultrabooks -- received the lion's share of attention at CES, Shenoy said Intel still sees a future in the high-end workstation market. "Our heritage has always been the best performance on the planet, and that's not going away," he stated, offering that the fourth-generation silicon would be able to simultaneously power three 4K x 2K displays. Shenoy hinted that more details will be revealed in April at the Intel Developers Forum in Beijing.

Shenoy also said the desktop could transform. He pointed to devices such as Lenovo's 27-inch IdeaCentre Horizon all-in-one PC, which can be used not only in traditional orientations but also as a table PC. Intel offered demonstrations in which the monitor was laid flat, like an enormous tablet, so that its screen could be used as a digital Monopoly board. "It's gonna be a fun year," Shenoy stated.

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