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IDF SF 2013 – The x86 Mobile Quandary starring Bay Trail and Haswell

Two very different battlegrounds – Windows and Android/ChromeOS

In the Windows ecosystem, thanks to legacy x86 backwards compatibility, Intel has almost no credible competition there, with the ARM based Windows RT failing to gain any traction (all the major OEMs and software developers have publicly deserted it). Microsoft might try another billion dollar experiment to flirt with ARM, but the dominant instruction set status quo and massive installed base is likely to remain in the long run.

Verily, there are concerns that Windows licensing costs inhibits OEMs from making devices to sell at certain price points without compromising in hardware specs (especially the screen panel choice – biggest culprit Acer Iconia W3). Office Productivity/Content creation on mobile touchscreen tablets and hybrids are arguably still in its infancy. Hence for the entry-level web browsing/media consumption usage models, the value proposition of traditional Windows is diminished in the face of alternative, purpose built for touch O/S choices.


Meanwhile, navigating in the Android/ChromeOS Google-verse is a lot trickier for Intel. Here, ARM/MIPS vendors (led by Qualcomm) and integrators have been locked in a race to the bottom (pricing wise) no thanks to the emergence of the Chinese companies – Allwinner/Rockchip/MediaTek on the SoC front and dozens more on the OEM side.

It also doesn’t help that software developers write applications for the lowest common denominator (read in Spock’s voice: it’s only logical). After all, nobody needs a speed demon CPU to browse the internet, check email, update social status and play Angry Birds.

Intel’s play is that they can offer a better user experience by exploiting its superior single threaded performance than the ARM competition which have been recently quite stagnant in this area (hence the marketing shift to moar cores or gratuitous GPU capability), resulting in smoother touch UI, faster web browsing javascript execution, application launch and potential power savings (the proverbial “race to idle”). To that end they have thousands of in-house software engineers, working on optimizing compilers, drivers and kernel scheduler for Android/Linux in order to seize every algorithmic advantage.


Where are the Bay Trail/Haswell design wins?

The first bombshell is that we learned from IDF that the Bay Trail Atom Android devices are not ready yet and is likely to miss the upcoming retail holiday season.

Secondly, instead of showcasing a flood of new designs (IDF/CES usually the hotbed), I noticed that the majority of the Ultrabooks and tablets on display at IDF still feature Ivy Bridge/Clovertrail CPUs. This also reflects the retail picture, where the very same unappealing devices that failed to sell over the past year (hence the PC market slowdown) sit on shelves waiting for somebody to pick them up over a el-cheapo Android tablet or premium fruit product.


Perhaps the myopic vendors waiting on Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 marketing initiatives before pushing out their wares. Meanwhile, mind share suffers and retailers endure slow months. End users also don’t get to enjoy the all-day battery life goodness enabled by the new silicon.

When these designs finally show up, I hope that in the pursuit to pigeon hole them into strategic price points, the bean counters don’t go compromise on the screen (washed out 1366×768 panels should be made a war crime when my $229 Nexus 7 has more pixels), dual channel memory, battery capacity, keyboard/trackpad usability and solid-state storage (I find it just mind boggling to put mechanical drives in tablet form factors – good luck with failures).

Finally, where is the Haswell based Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display? Some of us do need quad-cores and good displays to do work you know.

Lennard Seah
Why can't I have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads

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