Can Clover Trail break ARM's hold?

Can Clover Trail break ARM's hold?
Intel is hoping that its forthcoming Clover Trail processor for Windows 8 tablets will be its ticket to success in the ARM-dominated market. Agam Shah explains

Tablets running Clover Trail, also known as the Intel Atom Z2760 processor, were set to come on to the market as we went to press, in line with the launch of Windows 8. The chip is said to facilitate long battery life and full-HD video.

While Intel dominates the PC processor market, it faces a tough mobile competitor in ARM, whose processors ship in most smartphones and tablets, including Apple's iPad. Intel has high hopes for Windows 8, and has worked with Microsoft to take advantage of OS features to provide fast performance and long battery life in tablets.

The upper hand

Microsoft will release Windows 8 for Intel-based tablets and Windows RT for ARM-based tablets. Only those running standard Windows 8 on Intel chips will be able to support legacy Windows applications and drivers. Users will be able to install existing Windows 7 programs and attach peripherals such as printers and cameras. That could be an issue with tablets running Windows RT, but these devices may have advantages in price and battery life.

Intel has a better chance to succeed in the tablet market with the touch-based Windows 8, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Clover Trail's predecessors were used in tablets running Windows 7, which was a desktop* and not a mobile operating system.

Intel's primary goal with Clover Trail is to reduce power consumption in its tablet processors to allow it to catch up with ARM, whose chips were originally designed for smartphones and are considered to be more power-efficient.

Clover Trail is faster and more power efficient than the previous Atom tablet chip, codenamed Oak Trail, which appeared in just a handful of Windows 7 tablets in 2011. Clover Trail is made using an advanced, 32-nanometre manufacturing process, which makes the processor smaller in size, while reducing power leakage.

"With each generation the product becomes a better fit/’ McCarron said.

"Intel is doing everything it can."

Clover Trail tablets

Device makers have already shown off forthcoming tablets running Intel's Clover Trail chip. Lenovo announced the ThinkPad Tablet 2 (pictured below), while HP has unveiled its Envy X2, a hybrid laptop/tablet with a detachable keyboard. Asus and Samsung have also announced Windows 8 tablets running Clover Trail. A prominent name missing from this list is Microsoft, which has announced a Surface tablet based on Intel's faster, but more power-hungry. Core chips, and another with Windows RT.

Device makers have indicated the starting prices of Clover Trail tablets could be $500 or higher - more expensive than the iPad.

The Atom Z2760 is a dual-core processor that runs at 1.8GHz and has 1MB of L2 cache. Depending on the configuration, tablets with the Z2760 can include NFC and LTE capabilities. Some of its image-processing features were drawn from the Intel Atom 'Medfield' smartphone chip, which is currently found in handsets from companies including Lenovo, Motorola, Orange, Megafon, ZTE and Lava International.

Intel is open to making Clover Trail variants for device makers, said Steve Smith, director of tablets at Intel. The initial Clover Trail chips will be tuned to Windows 8, although the company wants to tune the Linux OS to take advantage of its power saving and graphics features. The company also offers Medfield for Android tablets.

Clover Trail will be succeeded next year by a tablet chip made using a 22 nanometre process, and by a 14-nanometre tablet processor in 2014.