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Intel's 'Bay Trail' Atom chip could blur the line between PCs, tablets

Mark Hachman | Aug. 12, 2013
Desktops, notebooks, tablets: Just five years ago, those three words defined three distinct classes of products. But now consumers are being asked to choose among all-in-ones, two-in-ones, convertibles, mini-tablets, ultraportables, and phablets. With Intel's new "Bay Trail" Atom chip, due this fall, you can expect the market to diversify even more.

Desktops, notebooks, tablets: Just five years ago, those three words defined three distinct classes of products. But now consumers are being asked to choose among all-in-ones, two-in-ones, convertibles, mini-tablets, ultraportables, and phablets. With Intel's new "Bay Trail" Atom chip, due this fall, you can expect the market to diversify even more.

And that's a beautiful thing.

For all of the various types of computing devices we might purchase, each is defined by its operating system. We buy a Windows machine, an Android device, or an iPad.

But that may soon change. Intel's Bay Trail supports both Windows and Android, and hardware manufacturers will be able to build machines that boot into either OS--or both. Their OS implementations notwithstanding, system prices could drop as low as $150, Intel executives have claimed.

Intel's investors might worry that the advantages of Bay Trail will encourage customers to migrate away from the more expensive Core chips used in traditional PCs. To PC makers, however, the new chip may well prove to be an escape hatch for a market that's on its way down: Bay Trail represents a chance to offer consumers the tablets that they overwhelmingly prefer plus the most popular mobile OS in Android, as well as an opportunity to expand market share through a new tier of low-cost devices.

Intel Atom
Intel's current 'Clover Trail' Atom has struggled somewhat, but the next-generation 'Bay Trail' promises significant improvements.

Bay Trail is the successor to the chip code-named "Clover Trail," the Atom Z2760 processor that Intel originally aimed at the Windows convertible market in September 2012. Although Clover Trail's low power consumption and long battery life were impressive, the chip's performance was disappointing. But Intel promises that the "Silvermont" architecture underlying Bay Trail will improve upon Clover Trail by offering two to two and a half times the performance, while providing a power reduction that's about four and a half times that of the Clover Trail chip.

Last year, Intel began offering a Clover Trail+ variant that could run Android. While the total number of design wins remains small, the dual-core Clover Trail+, also known as the 1.6GHz Intel Z2560 chip, powers one biggie: the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3.

Intel's new chief executive, Brian Krzanich, says that with respect to Core chips, Atom will be "an equal player in technological leadership." And Intel is thinking first and foremost about the ultramobile market, with tablets playing an increasing role. "We believe what [Bay Trail] really does [is that] it allows us to get into these markets that we're not in, in a big way today," he noted during an earnings call last month.

 

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