At last, Intel has mobile chips to reckon with

The smaller 'Broadwell' chips with 3D transistors will finally give Intel a leg up in its battle with ARM

It's easy to dismiss the launch of a new Intel CPU as a ho-hum event. On one level, this week's belated launch of the "Broadwell" chip -- the successor to the "Haswell" chips used in PCs' and Macs' Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs -- isn't that interesting. After all, Intel yields a new generation of chips for PC makers every year or two.

But "Broadwell" is about more than faster processors: The technology inside "Broadwell" puts it at the leading edge of a new generation of processors that will make Intel more competitive in the critical battle for mobile device dominance -- an area where Intel has struggled through years despite several waves of "mobile-optimized" Atom chips that didn't deliver the performance or power efficiency needed, handing the smartphone and tablet markets almost entirely to ARM-based chips.

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But "Broadwell" should break that cycle, says Dean McCarron, a principal analyst at Mercury Research. And it's not just "Broadwell" -- there's also "Cherry Trail," "Braxton," and "Moorefield." These four chips are targeted at skinny tablets and smartphones -- not laptops only -- using the new, more power-efficient 14-nanometer manufacturing process and the 3D transistor architecture known as FinFET.

What's more, the new mobile chips will be cheaper to make than the current "Bay Trail" family of Atom CPUs, which means Intel will no longer have to subsidize them to stay competitive with ARM chips, says McCarron. Cheaper to make means better margins for Intel and, before long, cheaper prices for device and makers, an obvious competitive advantage.

Intel isn't going to displace the makers of ARM chips anytime soon, but "Broadwell" and its brethren will make Intel more competitive than ever. These chips should also help dampen renewed speculation that an exasperated Apple will dump the currently pricey and power-hungry Intel CPU for an ARM A10-based chip in future Macs, letting Apple standardize on ARM across all its products and have greater control over its chip destiny. If Intel's chips perform as promised, Apple has less reason to go its own way, which is an expensive undertaking.

"Broadwell": Better late than never
That exasperation is real, delaying Apple's revamped Mac lineup from this past spring to this fall or perhaps even later. Depending on whose story you believe, "Broadwell" was either six months late or 12 months late -- and the probable cause was Intel's inability to get production yields (which equal profits) from the new 14nm process as high as possible.

But "Broadwell" is out now, and it has significant advantages. The first chip based on the new 14nm process, called the Intel Core M, is targeted at tablets and other devices that operate without a cooling fan but are as thin as 8mm -- the thickness of an iPad Air.

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