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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.

It seems almost inevitable that Intel will release several different versions of Bay Trail, simply because the chip straddles so many different markets. When Bay Trail enters the ultraportable Windows 8 PC market, it will have very little competition--just Intel's own Core chips, and a small showing from AMD.

In the tablet arena, however, "Intel is battling Qualcomm and Nvidia," says Tom Mainelli, an analyst for IDC. "And you've also got dozens of small ARM-processor makers all fighting for a share of the market."

In Asia and in other emerging markets, the situation is even worse, with cut-rate tablets vying for the consumer's wallet. Mainelli says that at the recent Computex show in Taiwan, he saw $99 and $129 tablets "that are pretty good." That means even cheaper chips to compete with, such as MediaTek's MT8125, a quad-core 1.5GHz ARM processor that the Asian chip designer has aimed at budget tablets.

What these conditions will create is "hypersegmentation," says John Wallace, a business line manager within Intel's Mobile Communications Group. Bay Trail will play within a number of tiers, from smaller, 7- to 8-inch minitablets all the way up to 11.6-inch tablets and two-in-ones that do double duty as laptops.

"No doubt it will be a challenging environment for everyone involved," Wallace says. "But we like a good fight."

The Acer Iconia W3, one miniature Windows tablet that could use a boost from Bay Trail.

The sizzle? Android. The steak? Bay Trail's price
So Bay Trail is important for Intel. But what will it mean for hardware makers and, eventually, for customers? The answer: flexibility.

None of the top-tier tablet vendors we reached out to--including Asus, Lenovo, and Samsung--would provide on-the-record comments regarding their Bay Trail plans. Two smaller manufacturers, Archos and MSI, declined to comment as well.

But analysts and two OEM sources say that what interests them most of all is Bay Trail's pricing advantage, and how it could help push prices downward into high-volume growth segments. NPD stated last month, for example, that the sub-$300 PC market is expected to grow more than 10 percent in 2013, while the overall PC market should decline by about 7.8 percent overall. The overall tablet market, meanwhile, grew 59.6 percent recently.

"My guess is that Windows 8.1 on Bay Trail, at $149 and $199, is a pretty compelling offering," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst for Insight64. "Windows 8.1 cleans up some of the controversies from the Windows 8 launch last year."

Publicly, hardware makers seem fascinated with Atom's new ability to support Android apps within a traditional desktop or laptop environment--maybe they're shifting attention to OS tricks because they can't yet discuss pricing. At summer's Computex show, for example, Acer showed off the N3-220, a pure Android 4.2 device in a desktop-PC form. Acer has said that it plans to unveil a line of dedicated Android PCs, perhaps paving the way for dedicated "Droidbooks" to hit the market.


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