Intel is expecting its next Atom tablet chip, code-named Cherry Trail, to be in devices by the end of this year.
A detailed update on Cherry Trail may be provided around the middle of this year, likely around the Computex trade show time frame, said Julie Coppernoll, marketing director in Intel's mobile and communications group.
Cherry Trail will go into tablets and low-end PCs, and succeed the current chip code-named Bay Trail, which was announced last year and is being used largely in tablets, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.
The Cherry Trail chip, which will be made using the 14-nanometre process, will be even faster and more power-efficient than Bay Trail, which is made using the 22nm process. Users can expect better battery life and performance in tablets with Cherry Trail compared to the current Bay Trail chips. The new 14nm manufacturing process will allow Intel to make denser chips that are more power-efficient.
Intel could target the new Cherry Trail chips at high-end tablets during the holiday season this year, and may push the Bay Trail tablet into the lower price band of tablets, a strategy the chip maker has adopted with its previous tablet and PC chips.
Intel's Bay Trail chips are largely found in Windows 8.1 tablets such as Dell's Venue products and Asustek's Transformer Book T100. Intel's LTE modem announced at Mobile World Congress, the XMM 7260, will also go into Bay Trail tablets later this year for mobile broadband connectivity.
The tablet chip upgrade to Cherry Trail is coming for Intel at a much faster pace than usual.
"In the mobile space they were working on a two-year cycle. They've gotten it down to a one-year cycle," Brookwood said.
With PC sales shrinking and users buying more smartphones and tablets, Intel has made mobile chips a priority. The chip maker is trying to use its manufacturing technologies, considered the industry's most advanced, to catch up with ARM, which dominates the mobile device market. ARM processors are used in a majority of tablets and smartphones today.
Intel has already started making chips using the 14nm process and hopes to have an advantage over rivals like Qualcomm, whose chips based on ARM designs are used in many smartphones and tablets. Most of Qualcomm's popular mobile chips are made with the 28nm process, so Cherry Trail could give Intel a power-efficiency and performance advantage.
Intel's advantage will be realized only if device makers respond quickly and incorporate the new chips in tablets, Brookwood said.
Intel is estimating that 40 million tablets with its chips will ship in 2014.
But the manufacturing race between Intel and ARM is tightening. Third-party manufacturers like GlobalFoundries and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.), which make most ARM-based chips for mobile devices, are also eyeing longer battery life and performance on mobile devices. The foundries are also advancing their manufacturing technologies at a fast pace to catch up with Intel.
TSMC and GlobalFoundries said they would start volume production of chips with 3D transistors using the 16nm and 14nm processes, respectively, this year. The 3D transistor technology, also called FinFET, restructures the way transistors are organised in chips so chips are faster and more power efficient.
It would be more realistic to expect GlobalFoundries and TSMC to start making 3D chips starting next year, and they could reach devices later, Brookwood said. Intel has been making 3D chips for years now, and has tactical and technological advantages with its 14nm process, Brookwood said.
Intel at MWC announced an Atom chip code-named Merrifield. Targeted mostly at smartphones, the chip could also make its way into tablets.