Processor Whispers: About Hares and Hedgehogs
by Christof Windeck
While AMD is preparing the launch of Trinity, Intel finally rolls out Ivy Bridge. And although its 45nm technology does the computing in the newest iPad, chip dissectors discovered a 32nm ARM SoC in the supposedly outdated iPad 2. Meanwhile, a 28nm chip takes up residence inside smartphones.
45-32-28-22: that's not a Swiss bank account number, but the structure sizes of semiconductor chips around which chip manufacturers are having a close race. The processor experts at Chipworks have reported that Apple had a surprise in store in this regard: the new Apple TV does not actually house a single-core and therefore more compact version of the A5 manufactured in the 45nm process, but a new 32nm version of this component.
And what's more, Apple is also equipping the supposedly unchanged iPad 2, the price of which has been reduced since the introduction of the new iPad, with this new chip. HTC still beats this: the computing inside the HTC One S smartphone is performed by a Snapdragon S4, which Qualcomm is having produced with 28nm structures, probably by contract manufacturer TSMC. The latter is reportedly barely able to keep up with the demand for 28nm chips. As for the construction of fab 14 in the southern Taiwanese Tainan Science Park, TSMC has to rearrange its plans because the excavators have brought to light clay fragments that are more than 3,000 years old. For now, it's the archaeologists' turn to work on the site.
Source: UBM Techinsights So the 32nm and 28nm production are now also state of the art for smartphone chips. As with Intel chips of the 45nm generation and current 32nm products from AMD, high-k dielectric and metal gates (HKMG) are employed here. The A5X for the most recent iPad is manufactured by Samsung with 45nm technology, although this is why, at 163 square millimeters, it even occupies a larger silicon surface than Intel's finally launched Ivy Bridge with 22nm structures – at least according to Intel's specifications (160 mm²). The chip dissectors from UBM Techinsights have measured 170 mm² for their Core i5-3550. However, using a transmission electron microscope, they were able to confirm that the chip does indeed come with Tri-Gate-transistors.
Old-school users that prefer real computers over mobile gadgets might be a little disappointed with Ivy Bridge. Probably because of the lack of competition from AMD or in order to protect the higher LGA2011 profits, Intel doesn't let the Core i7-3770K calculate much faster than the old 2700K. Only with the notebook Ivy Bridge chips is there an increase of a few hundreds of megahertz. Does this mean that Intel fears AMD's Trinity with the supposedly better GPU? Perhaps an especially important client gave Intel a broad hint that fluid graphics are more important for lifestyle notebooks than high computing performance.
The Ivy Bridge launched shortly after the spring IDF in Beijing, where Intel advertised its newest ideas for desktop PCs, Ultrabooks and servers to the Taiwanese mainboard developers. Just like Microsoft, Intel believes that Windows 8 PCs would be "more secure" with UEFI 2.3.1 and Secure Boot. Duty bound, the BIOS developers Insyde – with which Intel is financially involved – AMI and Phoenix announced willingness, but we didn't find any Secure Boot firmware on the first Z77 or H77 mainboards. This seems strange considering that Windows 8 is almost upon us and that, for such a critical feature, one would expect a longer test phase.
Also at the IDF, Intel announced the Atom Z2670, alias Clover Trail. With LPDDR3-RAM in tow, it's supposed to be the only x86 processor, for now, that allows the production of Windows 8 tablets that fulfill Microsoft's requirements for "connected standby" – otherwise, only ARM SoCs under Windows RT manage to do so. Nonetheless, one or other investor thinks the ARM shares have become overrated by now: the successful business model delivers strong, yet steady growth; great leaps, as the share prices anticipate, are not to be expected, it's said.
ARM competitor MIPS, whose cores are found inside many multimedia SoCs, has reportedly begun to look for a buyer for itself. And already there are rumours that AMD intends to make a move. AMD had gained experience with MIPS32 through the company Alchemy, which it had acquired in 2002, but sold again in 2006 – to Raza Microelectronics (RMI). The latter merged with NetLogic in 2009, and today, both are part of Broadcom. But who knows, maybe the Chinese creators of the Loongson would like to buy their licensor?
At the IDF, Intel also talked about the Thunderbolt interface, which, after all, is supposed to break free from the golden Apple cage and gain a foothold in the world of PCs: Acer as well as Asus, which both – maybe not coincidentally and just like Apple – also sell displays, have promised Thunderbolt Ultrabooks. As for desktop PCs, it looks bad for Thunderbolt because Intel apparently only allows it for Z75 and Z77 mainboards. These are intended for high-end and gaming PCs; rather expensive computers with a small market share. How a new technology is supposed to spread, if it may only be implemented into top-class computers, remains Intel's secret.
"Economy of Scale" – falling prices due to high production volumes – is used by Intel as an anti-ARM argument regarding the cheap and efficient micro servers for cloud computing centres. According to Intel, not only the company SeaMicro, recently acquired by AMD, but also, for instance, the Chinese online retailer Taobao, rely on Atom-powered servers. Until now, Intel had intended to sell Atoms only for embedded systems, cheap PCs and netbooks, which is why there were no features such as ECC memory protection.
To fend off the ARM server SoCs from Marvell, Calxeda and others, expected in large varieties in 2014, Intel performs a backward roll in form of the Centeron: this SoC with two 1.6GHz Atom cores and only 6 watts TDP supports VT-x, x64 and 8GB DDR3 or DDR3L-SDRAM with ECC. A southbridge is unnecessary, instead there are eight PCIe 2.0 lanes. In 2013, Intel might even bring 22nm quad-core Atoms to the market. AMD has recently presented its eight-core Opteron 3200 for micro servers, a close relative to the FX Bulldozer – but much more energy-efficient, at least at 2.4 GHz. 8.1 watts TDP per core is AMD's argument for the Opteron 3280 and against Intel's expensive quad-core Xeon E3-1260L (45 watts).