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AH Primetime: Intel’s Quiet Chromebook Evolution

October 22, 2014 - Written By David Steele

For about a month in 2013 I was using a Motorola RAZR i as my smartphone and a Samsung Chromebook Series 3 as my portable computer. The world was upside down: my smartphone was powered by an Intel processor and my notebook by an ARM processor! The typical design these days is a little different; our smartphones and tablets usually have an ARM type processor and our notebooks and Chromebooks are usually (but not always) powered by an Intel processor. Indeed, we’re seeing something of a resurgence from Intel in the mobile sphere thanks to Chromebook manufacturers adopting one of two Intel processor families: typically the dual core 1.4 GHz Celeron 2955U (around two thirds of designs) or the dual core 2.16 GHz N2830 “Bay Trail” processor. According to retail sales tracker NPD, Intel-powered Chromebooks took over two thirds of the market from September 2013 to August 2014. This is not so surprising given that there are many more models available with Intel inside compared with ARM inside but this doesn’t answer why manufacturers are building Chromebooks with Intel processors rather than adopting ARM processors.

Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich has a theory, which is their processors can run Windows, Chrome, Android or Tizen, which makes them unique among their competitors. I’m not sure that Tizen is a relevant product yet, but he’s right in that proper Windows doesn’t run on ARM processors (and Windows RT is as relevant as Tizen). At the moment we haven’t seen the one hardware design set up to run Chrome OS under one product code, Windows for another and maybe Android for another (although HP appear to be getting close to this!). I suspect it is down to cost: if Chromebook manufacturers are negotiating with Intel for a supply of processor, it’s likely cheaper to incorporate the mobile processors rather than start off fresh negotiations with Samsung for their ARM processor family.

Let us not forget what’s happening with Intel’s core market of desktop and server processors. Processor performance has not yet plateaued but the rate of change of processor performance has significantly slowed in the last few years. In outright performance, Intel’s 2014 generation of processors is not so much quicker than their 2013 generation, or for that matter, the 2012 generation. Where Intel have made great advances is in per-watt performance; newer processors are more efficient at the same performance. Intel’s processors are treading water in the performance stakes and heading down to mobile levels of power consumption. In contrast, mobile processors continue to make strides in performance and are reaching up to desktop class performance, but keeping with their low power consumption. Some processors – here’s looking at the Nvidia Tegra K1 that powers the HTC Nexus 9 and the new up-and-coming Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 family of processors – are arguably already in the desktop class.

Are Intel turning into a niche processor provider? Not any time soon, but by securing a foothold in the Chromebook market, they will generate mindshare in consumers buying these inexpensive productivity computers. Chromebooks proudly wearing the “Intel Inside” logo are no more expensive than those that do not and for the most part, are more responsive computers with longer battery life. Intel are also experimenting with wearable technology and in my mind, they’re going about this the right way: they’re providing the technology and leaving the design of such products to, well, designers as with the MICA smart bracelet. The experience that Intel are gathering in the mobile sphere will help their core markets, but the differential between desktop and mobile processor is blurring all of the time. Before too long, Intel’s fight may get a lot tougher but they’re preparing the ground beautifully.