How can Intel cut notebook power consumption in half?

Some big claims are made about the leap to Haswell that strain credulity, but the devil is in the details.

Intel held a recent chat with the American press who won't be making the 12 hour flight to Computex in Taipei next week (which is basically all of us) to offer a pre-briefing on the upcoming Haswell product line, set to make its debut at the show.

Every product launch carries its own separate significance, but Haswell really has a burden on its shoulders. PC sales are in the toilet and too many pundits anxious to make a name for themselves are gleefully declaring this to be the post-PC world.

I'll grant you that the tablet is finding its way into many former PC tasks; recently, I noticed at the doctor's office that they check you in with an iPad, not a laptop or a folder, and your records are all on the tablet, not paper.

But some blame belongs with the PCs, too. The fact is, ultrabooks failed to deliver. They didn't have the battery life and performance promised, and no, Windows 8 didn't help.

Haswell is the first CPU from Intel specifically designed for ultrabooks. It's had about three years of gestation as the ultrabook market emerged and Intel could learn from the mistakes of early product. So this chip will make or break ultrabooks, because Intel and the OEM partners don't get yet another chance to say 'We'll get it right the next time.'

At the briefing, Intel exec Rani Borkar put forward quite a claim: that a Haswell-powered ultrabook will get 50 percent more battery life than the current generation, the Ivy Bridge line of processors. Now that's quite a claim, but you have to remember that Borkar is talking about an entire new architecture, not just the CPU.

So what does Haswell bring to the table? Well, it comes with a fully integrated voltage regulator that was previously on the motherboard, so the CPU manages power internally. The new advanced power-saving system provides on-chip power management.

When Intel designs a new CPU generation, it also reinvents its chipsets and redesigns the motherboard entirely. Those reference designs are available for OEMs to copy and put their name on it or make their own innovations, which most do.

The PCH, or Platform Hub Controller, has been shrunk from 65nm to 32nm, which will give some decent power savings due to the smaller design. Voltage regulators have been consolidated to allow for smaller motherboards with fewer regulators.

So it's not just in the CPU where Intel can optimize things. Don't forget that Intel's designers are electrical engineers. They look at things holistically. That means changing all of the interconnects within the system and how power is managed. They change how the CPU talks to memory and the chipset and hard drive.

More importantly, they also change how electric signals are handled with the panel, and the panel is the worst offender for power consumption. This chart from Microsoft shows that the display consumes up to 47% of the total power in a laptop. That should come as no surprise since the number one trick of power savings on laptops, tablets and smartphones is to dim or turn off the display.

So by starting at the CPU and working their way out, they can get these kinds of savings. Will every Intel OEM improve ultrabook battery life by 50%? No. Some are better engineers than others; expect to see top of the line OEMs with higher than 50% improvement while the second- and third-stringers struggle and offer less than what Intel promised.

I'll have more on Saturday when all the wraps are taken off Haswell.

Read more of Andy Patrizio's Chip Shots blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Andy on Twitter at @apatrizio. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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