Intel Showcases New Chips, Big Vision

Intel unveiled Haswell chips, which it said will help revolutionize the tablet and PC markets, and painted a future in which its technology touches every person on Earth.
Going into Tuesday's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, some analysts were saying the semiconductor giant needed to outline a path for sustained growth, as its dominance of the slowing PC market hasn't clearly translated to footholds in the expanding mobile space. Dadi Perlmutter, executive VP and GM of Intel Architecture Group, aimed bigger than any single market, however, during the opening keynote address--he said Intel's vision is about touching all of humanity.

To illustrate this wide-reaching ambition, Perlmutter made the first public presentation of the Intel's forthcoming Haswell processor family, which he said would help Intel redefine tablets and hybrid PCs, starting next year. He also demonstrated several forthcoming products and technologies, including gesture-tracking tools and voice-based features that will soon be deployed in Ultrabooks.

Perlmutter revealed that the new Haswell processor architecture should offer substantial energy savings relative to Intel's current-generation Ivy Bridge chips. To illustrate, he ran a graphics demonstration using the Unigine engine that pitted an Ivy Bridge CPU against the upcoming revision. When the chips were compared with Haswell running at just below 8 watts and Ivy Bridge running roughly twice as hot, performance was equal, with both systems struggling somewhat to smoothly display the 1980 x 1020-pixel animation. When each processor was run at full power, however, Haswell was noticeably better, handling the challenging graphics without a hitch.

[ Learn more about Intel's Plan To Make Laptops Sexy Again: Ultrabooks. ]

The new Core offerings' clock speeds were not discussed, but Perlmutter suggested battery life could double--which, based on current Ultrabooks, could mean 15-20 hours of use. At least two Haswell varieties will be available to OEMs: a model that draws 10 watts, intended primarily for tablets, and one that draws 15 watts, which is a slight reduction from the 17 watts at which Ivy League processors run. These energy-efficient upgrades, which should also allow machines to more quickly awaken from sleep modes, could allow x86 machines to approach ARM-based devices' battery boasts while retaining the brute computing force to use more demanding applications.

Perlmutter mentioned that system-on-a-chip architectures and more power-conscious engineering have enabled form factors that open devices up to new user experiences and new applications. He emphasized not only the slim design of Ultrabooks--currently represented by around 70 models, with dozens more to arrive once Windows 8 ships--but also, as some manufacturers have recently demonstrated, laptops that use detachable screens or hinges to transform into tablets. The mobility that these devices facilitate has changed how people do their jobs, and Perlmutter said Haswell should allow OEMs to produce "enterprise-ready" tablets and applications, one of which was illustrated by an interface that allows doctors to not only access patient records but even videos of procedures, which he modeled with ultrasound footage.

While elaborating on user experience, Perlmutter remarked that "touch is just the beginning." One demonstration included Nuance's Dragon Assistant responding to voice commands for shopping results, music selections, and Twitter posts. The software, which will soon be available on current generation systems, responded appropriately to somewhat ambiguous commands and, according to Perlmutter, will be able to effectively handle thick accents within the next year. Gesture-based controls, which were demonstrated using a device bullet by SoftKinetics and Creative, are also slated to feature more prominently in upcoming products.

Intriguing as these new capabilities are, Perlmutter indicated that a focus that ends on touch and voice is too myopic, as Intel's technologies are spreading into the "Internet of things" and facilitating "perceptual computing." A Coke vending machine that uses an Ivy Bridge i7 processor was hauled onstage to illustrate the former concept. The soda dispenser relies on a touchscreen interface and includes a camera and Wi-Fi for any consumer who wants to turn a beverage purchase into a social media experience. The camera also offers data-mining opportunities, as a company could derive statistics about which demographics are purchasing given products in given areas.

"Perceptual computing," meanwhile, could "give computers humanlike senses," according to Perlmutter. This initiative, which strives to bring interactive interfaces to a new gamut of devices, looks to the future and factors into the "humanity" goals with which Perlmutter opened and closed his talk. To facilitate its development, Intel is initiating a contest that will award the most promising developer with $1 million in prizes and promotions. The company will also offer a perceptual computing software development kit in Q4.

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