Intel revealed more details about the planned successors for its current-generation Sandy Bridge processors at its Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco this week. Coming in the second quarter of 2012 will be Ivy Bridge, a 22nm die-shrink "tick" to Sandy Bridge's "tock." Ivy Bridge will benefit from Intel's new 3D tri-gate transistor technology, offering as much as a 37 percent power efficiency improvement along with what looks like serious integrated graphics improvements. Following that in 2013 will be the 22nm Haswell architecture, which promises "all day" laptop battery life along with up to 10 days of what Intel is calling "connected standby."
Sandy Bridge offered significant performance over last generation Intel CPUs within the same power envelope. Additionally, Intel integrated the GPU onto the same die as the CPU, connecting the two with a shared L3 cache. While Intel has had a pretty poor reputation with its integrated graphics solutions, the architectural improvements finally put the Intel HD3000 IGP included on most mobile Sandy Bridge chips on par with even low-end discrete GPUs. The performance boost was enough for Apple to ditch NVIDIA GPUs in its MacBook Air and other low-end machines.
Ivy Bridge will mainly be a die shrink of the Sandy Bridge architecture down to 22nm. To jump down to that process node, Intel basically reinvented how transistors and other components are etched into silicon wafers. The company developed a three-dimensional "tri-gate" transistor which offers serious efficiency improvements over traditional planar design techniques. In particular, it increases the usable frequency at a given voltage level, allowing Intel to either boost the frequency or reduce power—or some combination of the two.
The power savings will matter a great deal for mobile computing, including devices like notebooks and "ultrabooks." For instance, Intel will make an Ivy Bridge quad-core Core i7 part with a 35W TDP. As AnandTech notes, that means Apple could offer a 13" MacBook Pro, which is limited to 35W processors, to come in a quad-core configuration. The processors will also have a configurable TDP, meaning parts could be configured on the fly to max out at a higher or lower TDP depending on certain configurations. A MacBook Air is designed for a 17W TDP. An ULV Ivy Bridge processor could be limited to 13W TDP while running on battery power (and hence, likely sitting on someone's lap).
Intel also revealed a few details of Ivy Bridge's replacement, codenamed Haswell. The company says the design is complete, and showed off a working prototype during an IDF presentation. While not many details have been revealed, it's clear that low-power mobile computing is the name of Haswell's game. While mobile Ivy Bridge processors range from about 35-45W, Intel designed Haswell for a 10-20W power envelope. Effectively the kind of processing power you currently get from a MacBook Pro could fit into a MacBook Air.
Intel claims that Haswell CPUs will use less power than a comparable Ivy Bridge part—as much as 30 percent less. But the platform as a whole, including a revised power management architecture, can wring out as much as 20 times the battery life in what it calls a "connected standby" mode. "The idea here," according to AnandTech, "is to be able to put your notebook to sleep and have it continually fetch cloud updates (e-mail, IMs, tweets) for up to 10 days on a single charge." Real-world usage is said to be "all day," so we're thinking for current notebooks that manage 5-7 hours of battery life that could mean more like 8-12 hours. (An 11" MacBook Air that can run a full work day? Yes please!)
It's clear that Intel is targeting Haswell for its ultrabook initiative, which calls for thin, lightweight laptops with instant on capabilities and the ability to run for a full day on a single battery charge. In doing so, Intel is making Steve Jobs' proclamation that the MacBook Air represented the future of notebooks perhaps more prescient than many originally believed.
Ivy Bridge's die shrink also makes room for significantly more die area to be dedicated to graphics. Ivy Bridge processors will have 1.48 billion transistors, nearly half a billion more than Sandy Bridge. From what we now about Intel's promised graphics performance—OpenCL 1.1, OpenGL 3.1, and DX11—most of those transistors are going towards GPU improvements. Intel has promised a 60 percent improvement in GPU performance; that still won't be enough for serious gamers, but it does mean that more games will certainly be playable even on a MacBook Air.