Intel Gemini Lake hopes to hold off Windows on Snapdragon push

After last week’s pronouncement from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich claimed that “the world will run on Intel silicon,” the company has a lot of ground to cover to make that happen. One recent area of attack from the outside comes from Qualcomm and its push into the world of Windows PCs through the “Windows on Snapdragon” initiative. Using chips initially designed to target smartphones and tablets, Qualcomm is leveeing lower power consumption, a true connected standby capability, and connectivity improvements with an LTE modem to address one of the many markets that Intel has previously held dominance over.

Even with little experience in the world of Windows-based PCs and with silicon designs that are well understood to be built for smartphones first (at least in the initial implementations), Qualcomm’s Snapdragon is able to make a run at the lower tiers of notebook and convertible PC markets in large part due to Intel’s ambivalence. Intel has put seemingly little emphasis on the low power processor space, instead putting weight behind the “Core” family of products that provide the compute capability for higher-end notebooks, desktops, and enterprise servers.

Intel has tried various tactics in the low power space. It tried to revive the Intel Pentium architecture and modify it and also attempts to bring its “big” cores used in those higher performance processors down to a lower power rung. But doing so is difficult and puts great strain on the design engineers and production facilities to offer transistors that can perform optimally at both the high and low end of the performance spectrum. The result has been a family of products over several generations that have showed little improvement in performance, efficiency, or interest from Intel.

It is because of this lack of iterative performance improvement that Qualcomm has the ability to offer Snapdragon as a competitive alternative. Years of ignoring the space left a gap of air that competition could develop towards.

The mid-December announcement of the Pentium Silver and Celeron family of parts was met with very little fanfare, from either press or from Intel PR. Only after the release of architectural information in the form of software development documents do we find hope that the Goldmont Plus architecture that powers the Gemini Lake cores that power the new processors, may offer enough of an improvement in performance to make an impact. As the follow on to the Apollo Lake parts, Gemini Lake was expected to be just another refresh, but early performance metrics indicate that we may see as much as a 25% increase in IPC (instructions per clock) along with slightly increased clock rates. For multi-threaded workloads, on a chip that can integrate as many as four cores, benchmarks show a 45% increase over the previous generation.

Processors based on this design will sport TDPs starting at 6 watts, which is higher than where we expect the Snapdragon 835 in the first generation of Windows devices to operate. Intel does claim that the SDP, or Scenario Design Power, of a part like the Pentium Silver N5000 will be around 4.8 watts, indicating the power level at which Intel expects normal processing to occur. Close may not cut it though, as the importance of power consumption in standby states is going to be critical to the success of platforms in this class.

Maybe most interestingly is the addition of a CNVi, an integrated connectivity portion of the architecture. This is Intel’s attempt to simplify the integration and complexity of an RF chip and should allow OEMs and partners to more easily integrate high-speed WiFi and LTE/cellular connections. If this works out, Intel has clearly targeted the connectivity advantage that Qualcomm holds with its integrated X16 Gigabit LTE modem as a danger to its market leadership.

We will hopefully see the first wave of Gemini Lake powered notebooks and convertible at CES next month, though availability is looking closer to the February or March timeline. Even with announcements from key OEMs, usability testing will be needed to see how much performance the Goldmont Plus architecture truly delivers and if it can offer similar always-on, always-connected capability and battery life. No one expected Intel to sit back and let Qualcomm or other ARM processor vendors simply takeover a sizeable portion of any market, but we will sit back and see if Intel’s first attempt at a product response will hold any water.

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Ryan Shrout

Ryan is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, consulting and advising leaders in the mobile, graphics, processors and platforms. With more than 17 years of experience evaluating and analyzing hardware and technology as the owner of PC Perspective, Ryan has a breadth of knowledge in nearly all fields of hardware including CPUs, GPUs, SoC design, memory systems, storage, graphics, displays and their integration into smartphones, laptops, PCs and VR headsets. Ryan has worked with nearly every major technology giant and their product management teams including Intel, Qualcomm, AMD, NVIDIA, MediaTek, Dell, Lenovo, Huawei, HTC, Samsung, ASUS, Oculus, Microsoft and Adobe. With a focus on in-depth and real-world testing and with nearly two decades of hands-on experience, he focuses Shrout Research on bringing valuable insight on competitive analysis, consumer product expectations and real-world experience comparisons.

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