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Intel Pursues PC Revival With Core M Chips

Intel finally takes the covers off its next-gen "Broadwell" chips. Will they spur the long-awaited PC market bounce-back?

Intel on Friday finally launched its Core M processors, the first in its delayed family of fifth-generation Core, or "Broadwell," chips. Company execs teased Core M earlier this year, and have spent the last several months hyping the form factor innovations these chips will enable -- namely, unprecedentedly thin and light devices that still pack enough power for real PC productivity. Intel hopes that, by helping manufacturers produce PCs in new shapes and sizes, it can regain ground lost over the last few years, when many consumers and businesses chose iPads with ARM processors instead of Windows PCs with Intel chips.

"Don't take it for granted that it's preordained the PC will decline," Tom Garrison, VP and GM of Intel's commercial PC business, told InformationWeek in a recent interview. He said new device categories will change the way people work, adding, "We're pushing more dramatic innovations, not just simple, evolutionary ones. Completely new form factors that will be fun and amazing, and that will make employees more productive."

[Have 2-in-1s made tablets obsolete? Read No Reason To Buy A Tablet Anymore.]

Time will tell -- but among the few models announced so far that will use Broadwell chips, several arguably push Windows tablets to a new design standard. Upcoming models from Dell, Asus, Lenovo, and others will boast beautiful, pixel-rich screens and attachable keyboards stable enough for clamshell-style lap use. They won't need internal fans to keep the processor cool, and many of them will be less than 9 mm thick.

The ultra-thin Asus Transfomer Book T300 Chi, which will hit the market in coming months, was the first Core M device revealed.
The ultra-thin Asus Transfomer Book T300 Chi, which will hit the market in coming months, was the first Core M device revealed.

The 2-in-1 use case hasn't been as transformative as Intel and Microsoft hoped back when Windows 8 launched in fall 2012. Nevertheless, the upcoming devices, as well as the OS they'll run, are much more refined than the relatively clunky first-generation hybrids, such as the original Surface Pro. Dell execs argued this week that slow 2-in-1 adoption will soon take off.

"All of my peers know that they have to be on a modern OS with touch applications and multiple devices within three or four years," said Dell Commercial Client Solutions VP and GM Kirk Schell at the launch of his company's first Core M product, a sleek Latitude 2-in-1.

But others aren't yet persuaded. "Fanless designs and extraordinary battery life are good things, but they're incremental," Forrester analyst David Johnson told InformationWeek last month. "It keeps things fresh and renewed, but it's not a revolutionary change that's going to spark a wholesale resurgence."

With Intel Developer Forum starting Tuesday in San Francisco, the chipmaker likely has more tricks up its sleeve. Last week it only provided info on three variants of its Core M chips and barely acknowledged the more powerful quad-core Broadwell families, which are expected next year and will presumably end up in higher-end devices such as Apple's MacBook Pro.

The dual-core Core M chips draw as little as 4.5 watts. The new silicon achieves its power efficiency in part by intelligently fluctuating its clock speed based on the task at hand. For simple tablet tasks, one Core M model's clock speed runs as low as 800 MHz, but, for more demanding laptop applications, some of the chips can zoom up to 2.6 GHz.

Broadwell-generation processors are manufactured using a 14-nm fabrication process, which is shrunk down from Haswell's 22-nm technology. Thanks to the ability to fit even more transistors in even less space, Core M should deliver significantly better graphics performance and about two hours more battery life compared to previous-gen chips, according to Intel.

Intel's Broadwell chips are the first to be manufactured using a new 14-nm fabrication process.
Intel's Broadwell chips are the first to be manufactured using a new 14-nm fabrication process.

Intel execs have said Core M devices will hit the market for as little as $699, but most of the devices announced so far are significantly more expensive. When it becomes available later this fall, Lenovo's 11.6-inch ThinkPad Helix 2 will start at $999, for example, and Dell's Latitude 13 7000 Series 2-in-1

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carries an even pricier base cost of $1,199. Fewer than a dozen Core M devices are expected to hit the market this year, but that number could grow to more than 20 by early 2015, including (according to unverified reports) the much-rumored 12-inch MacBook Air with Retina Display.

Will these devices revitalize PC sales? As Johnson noted, it's unlikely that one type of device -- such as 2-in-1 hybrids -- could single-handedly accomplish such a task, especially as more users gravitate toward multi-device ecosystems, with different machines matched to different tasks. But mobile devices aren't the only type of computer that's been transformed by Intel's increasingly power-efficient chips.

Today's desktop computers are smaller than external hard drives were just a few years ago, which enables the machines to be mounted to the backside of monitors or the underside of desks. This flexibility arguably falls under the sort of incremental progress that Johnson described -- but it still allows people to set up their workflows in new ways, even if they're working on "traditional" PC applications. The newest Xeon chips for workstations, meanwhile, will support DDR4 RAM, one of several enhancements that should dramatically speed up workflows for the most demanding applications.

Will tiny-but-powerful desktops and other new form factors help PC sales continue improving?
Will tiny-but-powerful desktops and other new form factors help PC sales continue improving?

PC sales have ticked up in recent months, and sales of ARM tablets have been down, but it's premature to characterize Intel's gains as validation of its newest strategies. Heading into the second half of 2014, many enterprises already had device refreshes planned. With Windows XP's end-of-life deadline further inflating demand for new PCs, it would have been a disaster if sales hadn't improved, especially since year-over-year comparisons were already deflated by 2013's sales slump -- the worst in history.

Garrison said he's frequently asked if XP's retirement is artificially propping up Intel's business. He said Intel is bullish on long-term growth because large corporations have finally increased spending to pre-recession levels. He said that as this recovery extends to small and midsized businesses, demand for new computers (and new chips to power them) is unlikely to subside.

This logic is tricky, of course; the economic conditions that encourage a Fortune 100 company to increase IT spending aren't necessarily the same ones that affect a local business.

Garrison acknowledged this point by stressing that Intel is focused on telling customers about new use cases, rather than a device's specs and speeds. "A pet-shop owner knows how to use a PC but doesn't know a lot," he said, noting that Intel now offers its Business App Portfolio, a bundle of free software for business tablets that provides out-of-box videoconferencing, security, cloud storage, and e-signature tools. Such software demonstrates that Intel helps deliver a full, easy-to-use commercial computing experience, not just hardware components, Garrison said, adding that the strategy shows how new machines add value where aging PCs simply can't.

Garrison also discussed a recent study that found employee productivity increases if businesses deploy new devices more frequently. Companies that refresh PCs as often as every two years earn better productivity-to-cost ratios in the long run, according to the report. These benefits associated with new PCs, as well as more stylish and consumer-friendly commercial PC designs, have reduced the urgency around BYOD laptops and made it easier for companies to deploy company-controlled models, Garrison told us.

"The market isn't there yet, but it's getting there. [Recent gains] aren't just about XP. It certainly helped, but it can't come close to explaining the volume we're seeing."

But Forrester analysts haven't seen all the trends Garrison described. Johnson said the firm's research indicates most companies have increased the average lifespan of both desktops and notebooks. "There are two things driving sales in the last couple of years -- Windows migrations and the availability of thin, light Ultrabooks," he said. "Once those things get steady, I don't see refresh cycles getting shorter."

Buyers will soon get their chance to weigh in. So far, Acer, Asus, Dell, and Lenovo have announced plans to release Core M devices this year.

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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