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6/4/2012
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George Ou
George Ou
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Windows 8, Intel Atom SoC Will Be iPad Killer

Windows and Intel might finally have their iPad killer: Acer's Iconia W510. The dockable tablet promises to be the first of a new breed of powerful Windows tablets that run on Intel's Atom Z2760 dual-core System-on-Chip. It will have full Windows notebook capabilities as well, and excellent battery life.

When Intel announced its Windows 8 Tablet check list running on a soon-to-be-released Intel Atom Z2760 dual-core System on Chip (SoC), the reaction was mild enthusiasm with a healthy dose of skepticism. Intel said that Intel Windows 8 tablets would come with 10- or 11-inch screens, measure less than 9 mm thick, weigh less than 1.5 lbs, and offer more than nine hours of battery. The typical reaction was disbelief because no Intel notebook or netbook has ever come close to being as thin and light as an iPad with the battery life of an iPad.

Conventional wisdom among tech pundits held that Intel can't match tablets running ARM architecture processors because Intel had never delivered anything close to such a product. Intel-based Microsoft Tablet PCs were too heavy at over three pounds, too expensive with prices between $1,000 and $3,000, too short on battery life, and too inconvenient with an OS that had to be shut down or suspended. With Intel and Microsoft having a miserable 11-year track record in the tablet computing space and the fact that not much was known about the mystery Intel Atom Z2760 "Clover Trail" processor, all the skepticism was warranted.

Now that we can actually see hands-on product videos of the Acer Iconia W510 ($400 to $800 range) transformable tablet with 18 hours battery life in docked mode, it's clear that Intel was not bluffing. PC World reports that the Iconia uses an Intel SoC. That makes sense given the fact that there is no way a full-size notebook chip can even fit into a 9-mm-thin detachable chassis that also has to accommodate an LCD panel and achieve phenomenal battery life. And because Intel announced last month that Intel SoC Windows 8 tablets will use the Atom Z2760, it's almost a certainty that the Acer Iconia W510 is based on this design.

Clover Trail architecture revealed

The most intriguing aspect of this product is that it promises a quantum leap in Windows notebook battery life. However, the big question is always on functionality like it has been with the iPad and Android tablets running on ARM processors. To answer this question we need to know more about the Intel Atom Z2760 processor, so I sent a media inquiry to Intel more than a week ago. Intel has yet to respond and not much has been reported about the Z2760 or "Clover Trail". Microsoft deepened the mystery by only showing bulky test rigs with low battery life at the 2011 Build conference. Microsoft has only revealed that Windows 8 running on ARM will have always-on capability.

The only existing Intel product that can achieve this phenomenal battery life is the Intel Atom Z2460 "Medfield". Medfield is a 32nm single-core Intel SoC running PowerVR SGX 540 graphics and it is the first Intel processor to successfully launch in a smartphone. Despite its single-core architecture, Medfield still manages good performance compared to tablets but will likely seem underpowered in a hybrid notebook/tablet. That led me to suspect that the Atom Z2760 is very similar to the already announced Atom Z2580, which is a dual-core version of Medfield running the more advanced PowerVR SGX 544MP2 graphics technology.

To verify my suspicions, I turned to David Kanter of Real World Tech who is the go-to expert analyst on the chip industry. Kanter said Clover Trail is one of the successors to Intel Medfield and it will indeed have always-on capability. He added that the Z2580 and Z2760 are likely close relatives with a few differences in graphics, I/O options, frequency, thermal, and power limits. More specifically, the graphics (still PowerVR) in the Z2760 will have to support DirectX because it's meant for the Windows market.

An iPad killer is born

Without a full review or at least the full specifications on the Acer Iconia W510, we can't know for certain what processor it will use or how it will perform in real life. But all the evidence points to a hybrid notebook/tablet that seems poised to converge the tablet and notebook space. Unlike ARM-based Windows 8 tablets that will not be able to run any existing Windows software or support enterprise requirements such as Windows Active Directory, Windows 8 running on Intel SoC promises a bridge between the past and the future.

You can undock the Iconia W510 and run native Metro apps and Windows desktop applications (even if there might be some user interface challenges). Dock the tablet into the keyboard and trackpad, and you have a full-fledged Windows laptop with phenomenal 18-hour battery life. Intel and Microsoft are betting their future on the fact that their hybrid beats carrying an iPad in addition to a notebook. Other recent efforts, such as Intel's Cove Point, might not be iPad killers, but Clover Trail on Windows 8 looks like a pretty good challenger.

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