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Intel's Silvermont microarchitecture signals the firm's realisation that it needs to iterate low-power microarchitecture development on an annual lifecycle in order to compete with ARM.

As Intel prepares to launch Haswell at Computex next month, the firm has decided to release some technical details regarding Silvermont, a technology that is far more important than Haswell for Intel's future. The firm will push Silvermont into upcoming Bay Trail and Merrifield Atom processors destined for tablets and smartphones respectively.

Intel's Silvermont microarchitecture is the first major revision to its "low power" microarchitecture since Bonnell, which powered the first Atom chips that ended up in netbooks. However Intel won't be waiting the best part of five years to build on Silvermont, revealing that Silvermont is the first in a line of annual microarchitecture refreshes.

According to Intel's literature Airmont, the successor to Silvermont, will be fabricated at 14nm and provided the strongest signal yet that next year will see 14nm chips leave Intel's various fabs. Aside from Intel producing 14nm chips in 2014, it also serves to highlight that the firm's Atom range of chips have finally become first-class citizens with desktop and laptop parts that traditionally have enjoyed the firm's cutting edge lithography techniques.

As for Silvermont, Intel said it had developed a new out-of-order execution engine, something that was seen as the firm's Achilles' heel in previous Atom chips. Intel's new microarchitecture splits processing units into modules with each module having two cores each having access to 1MB of Level 2 cache. The firm said its newly designed inter-module fabric supports four modules and most importantly system power can be shared between the CPU and GPU.

Intel provided a number of canned benchmarks that it claimed not only shows the microarchitecture outperforming ARM-based chips on raw performance but power utilisation, however those figures - like any issued by a vendor - are best taken with an unhealthy dose of salt.

The main problem with Intel's figures is that the Silvermont CPU microarchitecture is only one component of a system-on-chip (SoC). Intel's Bay Trail and Merrifield chips will not only have a CPU based on Silvermont but a graphics core, which in the past has been licensed from Imagination Technologies and certainly in the case of Merrifield, baseband implementation that could be software defined, but given Merrifield's late 2013 arrival date, looks likely to be a hardware implementation.

Make no mistake, Intel's Silvermont microarchitecture is a key part of Bay Trail and Merrifield but graphics performance, especially in tablets, will be increasingly important in the future and the firm didn't provide any information on that. And until Intel's software defined radio implementation hits production ready status, the firm will find it hard to persuade smartphone makers that they should shift away from a well defined supply chain that has in the past ignored Intel.

Intel's decision to put its low-power microarchitecture on an annual lifecycle shows just how much work the firm has to do to bridge the gap in market share between it and the numerous ARM vendors that effectively own the smartphone and tablet market. Once Intel releases Bay Trail and Merrifield SoCs, the industry will see just how big a jump the chipmaker has to make every 12 months in order to stay competitive with ARM and its gaggle of licensees.
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