Intel’s PC Comeback

The writing on the PC Wall is ugly with not just a 14% decline in year over year sales in 1Q2013  but 4 straight quarters of sales declines as well. This trend has hit Intel as the primary PC chipmaker doubly hard because Intel has failed to break into the mobile chip market where smartphone and tablets sales are exploding. But Intel is returning fire  in 3  Empire Strikes Back ways.

Attack the ARM Enemy’s Strength

In the mobile arena Intel’s Atom processor just have not been able to crack into the smartphone or tablet markets dominated by ARM-based processors. A number of factors including lack of a complete System on a Chip design, LTE support,  but most crucially higher power drains than competititive ARM chips has stalled Intel’s Atom processors. Of course this power disadvantage has been the bane of Intels Core i3 to i7 PC chip line up as well.

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Traditionally Intel has won the price and speed of performance wars against all comers in the PC market including AMD, Motorola and IBM. Now, Intel has added better power usage numbers versus ARM chips as well as better CPU performance speeds.
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Intel AtomZ2580 chip used in a Lenovo smartphone outpaces Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia top of line chips

What is truly a reversal in form is that Intel’s Atom processor bested the best ARM chips from 3 vendors in power consumption with the exception of 2 out of 5 power consumption tests coming out  behind Nvidia’s ARM processor which was trounced in the performance speed tests. It was clear power wins against all the other ARM vendors. And the same can be said for speed of operations with Atom chip losing only to the Samsung Exynos Octa processor in just the 2D and 3D  graphics tests. Clearly but also very late, Intel’s Atom Processors are beating ARM at the low power usage game while still preserving for the Atom processor a speed/performance advantage. Will this be enough to a)convert a significant number of  ARM smartphone builders  to  using ATOM chips and b)convert tablet builders to using Atom chips and offering a PC dual mode option?. The latter option, tablets returning to the PC fold is desirable for Intel because they dominate the PC chip game.

Make PCs Equal To If Not Better Than Any Tablet

PCs lost to tablets because they were markedly slower on startup and shut down, had no touch screen operations, were  heavier even as laptops, bigger and bulkier for carrying but most crucially had a battery life 1/4 of smartphones and tablets. But smartphones and tablets  are becoming bigger and bulkier, are starting to lose some of the battery life performance as media and big screens drain power Also tablets are starting to approach ultrabook size, weight but not CPU performance.

Intel is out to accelerate that trend by making ultrabooks able to be thinner, smaller, yet still superior in CPU performance. Even more important Intel and the PCs vendors are now actively selling “2 for 1” where laptops and ultrabook PCs can be easily converted into  a tablet with touch screen operations, plus GPS, NFC and  WiFi capabilities. And with Google Hangouts or Microsoft Skype among others, the ultrabooks and laptops can even start to compete with smartphones.

In short as smartphones and tablets gain performance power they are morphing into keyboardless and mouseless ultrabooks and laptops. So Intel is making sure with its Haswell chip-set  have price, performance, power and sizing advantage which give ultrabooks  a superior position relative to the best tablets. It is simple rationale.  Intel dominates the PC game having beaten back a fierce mid-2000’s assault from AMD, so the goal is to convert smartphones and tablets users back to PC powered devices. Let us  see if that goal is being achieved with the Haswell-chip  enabled PCs.

Comparison of Top PCs versus Top Tablets
Spec Samsung ATIV Book 9
Apple MacBook Pro 13 Apple iPad Google Nexus 10
Display TFT – 13.3 inch TFT 13.3 inch TFT Active Matrix – 9.7inch  TFT Active Matrix – 10 inch
Display Resolution 3200 x 1800 Gorilla Glass 2560 x 1600 Gorilla Glass 2048 x 1536 Gorilla Glass 2560 x 1600 Gorilla Glass
Touchscreen Yes No Yes Yes
Dimensions 338 x 228  x 13.6 mm 325 x 227 x 24.1 mm  241 x 186 x 9.4 mm  264 x 178 x 8.9 mm
Weight 1369 gm 2060 gm  652 gm  605gm
OS Windows 8.1 Mac OS/X 10.8 iOS6 Android 4.2.2
Memory 8GB 4GB 1GB  2GB
Disk 256GB SSD 500GB 5400RPM  16B SSD  16GB SSD
Disk maximum 1TB thru USB3 256GB SSD  128GB 128GB
CPU chip Haswell Core i5 or i7, 3GHz Ivy Bridge Core i5 or i7, 2.5GHz  A6x dual core, quad GPU 1.7GHz A15 dual core, quad GPU
Battery ??? 6860mAh  3694mAh  9000mAh
Boot time sleep 0.9 sec, startup 5.9sec startup 27sec startup 40sec startup 16sec
Battery life 12 hour 7 hour 10 hour 9 hour 
Sensors ambient light ambient light GPS, gyro, ambient light,
GPS, gyro, ambient light,
accelerometer, digital compass,
Camera  front 1.2MP no rear  front 0.777MP no rear  front 1.2MP, rear 5MP  front 1.9MP, rear 5MP
Video 720p, 30fps 720p, 30fps  1080p, 30fps  1080p, 30fps
Connectivity 2 USB 3, HDMI, headphone 2 USB 3, FireWire, Thunderbolt
convert to HDMI, headphone,
8x super drive
Lightning to USB,headphone micro USB, micro HDMI, headphone
Communication 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4,
802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4,
 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 3,
Price  ???? $1199  $509  $399
Links to technical specifications are in top column except where link is provided in body, Green highlight indicates top spec

If one considers the CPU, disk drive, and screen size+resolution, Intel chip users have been able to put pressure on the ARM camp of tablets. But te real breakthrough is what the Intel’s Haswell chip delivers in top-rated performance for boot up time and battery life. These are serious inroads and are reflected in a varity of new laptop PCs.  And the consensus is that later announcements  this summer of PCs for holiday sales, there will be more screen size, 2 in 1 options for converting PCs to tablets like Samsung’s ATIV Q, plus the benefit of a free Windows 8.1 blue upgrade plus MacOS and MacBook/MacPro improvements  to make PCs much more popular against the smartphone and tablet competition.

Microsoft has yet to deliver a killer Windows 8 app. But Intel, with its Haswell chips’ killer outstanding boot time and battery life  along with touch screens  and new perceptual computing initaitive with new Kinect like gesture UIs may fill in that missing killer app gap. Clearly everyone will be watching the August and September back to school sales  to see if the new PC-better-than-tablets improvements will restore PCs to being the

Increase the PCs Input and Versatility Advantage

I have a Nexus 7 which I enjoy very much for casual reading, listening to music, game playing and browsing the web. But to get real work done, the tablet’s touchscreen-only operations  just do not hack it. For business and work, a PC’s keyboard and mouse are essential. There is so much learned and earned computing shortcuts such as  speed of typing, keyboard control clicks [think CTRL+C, CTL+C, ESC, etc], precision mouse pointing, joint keyboard+mouse  operations among others –  that I and many [near billions of others] simply do not want to forgo when they need to be productive. And  Intel+Microsoft already have for the PC  almost all of the smartphone+tablet input controls with robust touchscreen operations  and voice command support.

So now what Intel is doing  is making PC’s relevant with many more input options with its $100million Perceptual Computing initiative and SDK. PC’s now bring to personal computing many more input options than smartphones and tablets which are touchscreen and voice command primarily.

There are two important arenas where smartphones and tablets have not been able to breakthrough – advanced gaming and business productivity apps. The best gaming is still Microsoft PC  or XBox/Playstation/Wii oriented with a strong MacOS contingent. True there are great games to be found on smartphones and tablets – but the advanced external controller devices are primarily PC oriented. And now 3D Gesture UIs like Kinect, LeapMotion, and Creative Senz 3D have already been translated to the PC platforms where they will contribute not just to gaming but also creative and productivity apps.

It is in productivity apps that PCs and Intel should really prosper. Already, PCs have a tremendous advantage in the sheer number of apps. But with PCs now beating tablets on their own turf in terms of size, two-in-one portability/adaptability, and notably battery life  -tablets should begin to wane as PCs bring more versatility to personal computing and productivity. Finally, Intel’s Perceptual Computing SDK and $100million in funding should assure that the tablet community will not spring any major innovation surprises on PCs.


Smartphones, deriving from their PDA-Personal Digital Assistant roots, have become the Swiss Army Knife of electronic devices as they have subsumed and absorbed ever more electronic device roles. Media player, calendar and notetaker, phone, ebook, GPS and mapping tool, navigation and location finder, handy camera, video taker, tape recorder, web browser, fitness monitor, digital wallet, and so on. Their physical sensors coupled with lightness, flexible size, and battery life will guarantee that mobile devices will do very well in the personal consumer electronics space for some time to come. But as chips become relentlessly more powerful – they have pulled mobile devices in many directions. One of those is towards the overall size and power consumption of PCs.

Smartphones and multi-use devices will be protected against the centripetal force that pulls, grows and makes tablets just like PCs – an encounter that tablets cannot win against the size and power-saving revitalized PCs with their millions of apps. And Cloud Computing will supply no cover for tablets because PCs already thrive there. And Apple will have to supply touchscreen and pen/pointer to long suffering Mac graphic users as the LeapMotion and  Creative Senz 3D devices bring gestures UIs to games and creative work on PCs. In short, for the next 2-3 years, the ChipZilla Empire Strikes Back in consumer computing.

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