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Intel’s new Core M chips open the door for thinner, lighter, fanless PCs

Intel’s new fifth-generation Core processors, which are built on a new architecture known as Broadwell, are now on their way to PC builders for a planned release later this year. Meanwhile, the company is using IFA 2014 as an opportunity to highlight its continuing focus on efficient mobile computers like Ultrabooks, convertibles, and all-in-ones. Intel’s new Core M processors, which the company detailed today, will consume less than five watts of power.

The efficiency gains enjoyed by the new Broadwell-based chips are impressive, to say the least, and come courtesy of a transition from the “old” 22nm production process, to cutting-edge 14nm. As has usually been the case, this latest switch promises a substantial increase in power efficiency.

Four years ago, the most conservative Intel Core Mobile processor needed around 18 watts of power to work, but the new Core M chips average about 4.5 watts. That’s four times less power consumption. The size of the hardware has decreased significantly too. The new Core M parts measure 30 x 16.5 x 1.05 millimeters thick. By comparison, fourth-generation Intel Core chips measure 40 x 24 x 1.5 millimeters.

Intel Core M Broadwell Y 14nm Wafer
Core M chips consume much less power than older Intel CPUs.

These improvements will allow manufacturers to build a wider variety of thinner, fan-less designs. We’ve seen this already with fourth-generation Intel hardware, but it was relatively rare. With 5th generation Intel gear however, fan-less designs could start to take center stage.

Since Core M enables fan-less designs, the gear that’s associated with systems that aren’t fan-less can be stripped out. This includes cooling fans, heat-sinks, and exhaust vents. These parts are often thick, and can add significant weight (compared to other hardware, at least) to whatever computer they’re in. By eliminating the need for these components, computers with Core M chips in them could be very thin and light down the line.

While the Core M CPU that Intel announced today won’t be the quickest in this series (more powerful models will arrive at some point later), they should be more than capable of handling the average user’s needs. Intel believes that anyone with a notebook that’s about four years old will see a notable improvement. Systems packing the new Core M-5Y70 CPU (yes, Intel has changed its naming rules again) should be up to 2.3 times quicker when using Web-based apps, and 7.1 times faster when playing games compared to a system with an Intel Core i5-520UM CPU, for instance. The latter chip was released in January of 2010, according to this document from Intel.

Intel believes Broadwell chips will help manufacturers build products that appeal to users who own laptops that are a few years old.

Intel is using some very specific math to obtain those results though, as the i5-520UM was a low-voltage chip that sold in very modest numbers. Most laptops of the era had a CPU like the “standard” Core i5-520M, which needed more than a whopping 30 watts (a huge figure by modern standards) to operate. However, it was also more powerful. Intel’s comparison is correct in the sense that it’s comparing apples to apples, but it’s not representative of how most notebooks sold in 2010 were configured. Most consumers who upgrade from a standard notebook that was built in 2010 to a modern device with Core M inside will likely see more modest improvements than what Intel is claiming.

Intel also promises that the new chip will offer up to 50 percent faster CPU processing, and up to 40 percent better graphics performance than the company’s last generation CPUs. However, once again, these numbers are possible only because Intel has used a relatively rare processor, the Core i5-4302Y, for its comparison.

Still, an increase of some measure is likely, as Broadwell provides not only a new CPU architecture built on a more advanced production process, but also improvements to the integrated Intel HD Graphics GPU. The initial wave of mobile chips will ship with HD 5300 GPUs, which is clocked at speeds up to 850 MHz. It also supports 4K resolution, and all the latest graphics standards.

Regardless of the performance specifics, it’s clear that Intel believes Broadwell chips will help manufacturers build products that appeal to users who own laptops that are a few years old. Intel claims that a new notebook or 2-in-1 device powered with a Core M processor can be up to three times thinner, and 50 percent lighter than an ultra-portable from 2010.

While the appeal of 2-in-1 computers is debatable, the improvements that Intel claims to have made in battery life can’t be ignored. If they turn out to be true, better battery life will likely be the new Core M processor’s most impressive trait. Intel boasts an increase of over an hour and a half compared to the outgoing generation of CPUs, and that’s with a modest 35 watt-hour battery.

Intel Core M Broadwell Y Die Vertical Saturated
Core M-based computers could usher in a new wave of super thin and ultra light systems.

This translates to about 10 hours of idle time, and over 8 hours of Web browsing on a single charge. If correct, these figures show that Intel has considerably increased battery life over the last few years. For example, back in 2010, we noted that the ASUS U30Jc offered just over six hours of endurance from its gigantic eight-cell battery, which was an excellent number at the time. That was also with a light workload consisting of Web-browsing with the display’s brightness set to 50 percent.

As is always the case with early reveals, the information here should be taken with a small grain of salt, because it’s delivered exclusively from Intel. We won’t have the chance to test out Broadwell-based rigs until systems equipped with this tech begin to ship from manufacturers later this year.

While Intel’s IFA 2014 announcement is referred to as a “launch,” Intel’s production ramp-up will be slow. The company plans to begin with its most efficient (and least powerful) Core M CPUs before adding more powerful configurations. The very first Core M notebooks and 2-in-1s will land sometime in October. Meanwhile, Broadwell-based processors for desktops are not scheduled to arrive until “early 2015,” which means that we won’t see them until CES 2015, at the earliest.

Until then, we’ll be keeping a close eye on Broadwell. Intel’s decision to launch its most efficient components first shows that the company believes in small, thin systems that can potentially compete with Android and iOS tablets. This focus hasn’t paid off so far, but Intel’s new chips may be just what manufacturers need to build truly excellent 2-in-1 and super-thin computers.

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