Can Intel Buck Moore’s Law with Its New Mobile Processors?

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My first job ever was at Best Buy. I applied when I was 14 and was turned down for being too young. I reapplied at 15, was almost hired, and then got turned down when they asked to see my non-existent driver’s license. I reapplied on my 16th birthday and was finally hired. Nerd alert.

In the two years between when I first applied and the day I actually got hired, the amount of tiny transistors that could be stuffed onto a processor had roughly doubled, according to Moore’s law. Again, nerd alert.

Making $5.18 an hour selling computers when the rest of your friends are making $4.25 an hour wherever people who don’t sell computers work was enough to make me believe I’d be comfortable working at Best Buy for the rest of my life. And by my calculations, if I’d stayed in the computer department at Best Buy Store #005 until the present day AND the wages of computer salespeople grew commensurate with Moore’s law, I’d now be making $1326.08 per hour. But math was never my strong suit, so I could be way off and Moore’s law doesn’t apply to money, so that’s that.


When you sold a computer to someone in 1995, it was important to know the ins and outs of the new, first-generation Pentium processors on the market because people used to ask about processors back then. It was one of the most important—if not the most important—selling points. AMD’s K5 processor that came out the following year added yet another level of complexity to a life already complicated by high school, (lack of) girls, and trying to find braided belts that went well with corduroys and Birkenstocks.

Fast forward to today and the processor, though still very important to the overall functioning of any computing device, is rarely the first thing on the minds of most regular consumers shopping for technology and probably the last thing on anyone at Best Buy’s mind (burn!).

Most people want tablets, thin and light laptops with long battery life, and smartphones with cool apps. The processors inside those devices don’t really matter to the general public as long as everything just works.

That’s opened the door for Intel’s rivals to get deeply entrenched in the market—especially a rival like ARM that’s been making mobile-friendly chips ideally suited for devices like tablets and smartphones all along.

Intel is now aggressively attempting to grab a chunk of the growing tablet market—and prop up interest in the shrinking netbook market—with its new “Oak Trail” processors. Initially announced almost a year ago, Intel is now promising that “over 35 innovative tablet and hybrid designs” will roll off the lines this year, starting next month. These won’t just be Windows-based devices, either—they’ll spill over into Android ones as well.

The allure of the Oak Trail platform is that it should theoretically be more powerful than previous Intel chips found mainly in netbooks, yet it works in fanless configurations, sports longer battery life, and includes built-in 1080p video decoding right on the chip. More bang for the buck, in other words, and the fanless setup will mean much thinner devices like tablets and (hopefully) MacBook Air-like ultraportable designs without the $1,000+ price tags.

And though Intel uses the word “netbook” five times in its Oak Trail press release, it’d probably be ultimately beneficial for the industry in general if the term “netbook” just faded away. If these new processors truly provide the computing power and video-handling capability that netbooks haven’t been able to provide, then it’s probably best not to lump these wondermachines in the same category as netbooks. Silly, wimpy, cheap-o netbooks.

While it may be tempting to accuse Intel of delivering too little, too late—and Intel is, indeed, late to the tablet and smartphone games—it’s important to remember that the company still has several things in its favor. Aside from strong preexisting relationships with established device manufacturers, Intel spends a ton of money on R&D and manufacturing—so much so that it’s promising to buck Moore’s law with these new mobile chips it’s developing.

Intel’s Doug Davis says, “We are accelerating the Intel Atom product line to now move faster than Moore’s law, bringing new products to market on three process technologies in the next 3 years.” We’ll see the aforementioned Oak Trail processors this year, more powerful Cedar Trail processors next year, and a yet-unnamed processor technology in 2013.

It’s not entirely clear whether Davis is referring to doubling the amount of transistors stuffed onto a processor every year now instead of every two years, as Moore’s law states, or whether he’s referring to the idea that Moore’s law results in the doubling of integrated circuit performance every 18 months, which would now be cut down to 12 months. Sigh. Nerd alert.

Whatever the case, most regular people likely still won’t notice or care which processors are being used in their devices. But technology in general may feel like it’s moving along even faster than it already does.

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