Intel Roadmap update #2: Flash cache coming to your notebook

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Chicago (IL) - In this second edition of our Intel roadmap update, we are focusing on Intel's mobile product lineup for 2007. Similar to the desktop, there aren't big processor plans, with the exception of slight Core 2 Duo T updates. The real news next year will be the Santa Rosa platform: Expect notebooks to run faster with flash cache and see new features such as integrated wireless broadband.

Merom in Tom's Hardware's test lab: See how the processor performs ...

For some time now, we have been following analyst reports and industry voices who clearly point to the increasing importance of notebooks in global computer sales. Intel, the dominant manufacturer of mobile processors and mobile platforms, is at the center of this ongoing and accelerating trend, which now exceeds well more than one third of all computers sold in numerous geographic regions around the world. Not only do the firm's most recent quarter results reveal that most of its growth and profits come from mobile products. Rival AMD is also gaining ground and is expected to introduce aCentrino-like mobile platform in the first half of 2007 - which should heat up the competition in the mobile space.

In January of this year, Intel introduced the Core Duo (code-named "Yonah") dual-core processor, which according to benchmarks published by Tom's Hardware Guide, is still superior to AMD's latest Turion 64 X2 processor. With the increasing availability of the even more capable Core 2 Duo T5000/7000 (code-named "Merom"), Intel currently has a comfortable lead in the processor segment - and, similar to the desktop space - has little pressure to rush out new CPUs at higher clock speeds. Accordingly, there aren't significant clock speed increases on the 2007 roadmap (while we have to concede that at this time we have very little visibility on the 45 nm "Penryn" core, which is expected to debut as early as Q4 2007 or in Q1 2008.)

New processors for 2007

Intel's top priority for the current quarter and early 2007 is the ramp of current Core 2 Duo processors into the Napa64 platform, which is basically the same platform that was introduced in January of this year for the Core Duo processor, but offers added 64-bit support. The line-up will remain unchanged and include the T5500 and T5600 (1.66 and 1.83 GHz, each with 2 MB L2 cache) on the low-end and the T7200, T7400, T7600 (2.0, 2.16 and 2.33 GHz, each with 4 MB L2 cache) in the mainstream and higher end.

Intel will roll out four new Core 2 Duos, which will be positioned as successors of the first Core 2 Duo T generation. The CPUs will include the T7100 (1.8 GHz), T7300 (2.0 GHz), T7500 (2.2 GHz) and T7600 (2.4 GHz). With the exception of the T7100, all new CPUs will carry 4 MB of L2 cache.

The new Meroms will be limited for use within Intel's upcoming "Santa Rosa" platform, which will lift the front side-bus speed from currently 667 MHz to 800 MHz.

Intel's Core 2 Duo T7600 processor (left) and the current Core Duo T2600. The T7600 is clocked at 2.33 GHz, The T2600 at 2.16 GHz.

On the low voltage side, Intel will release the L7500 and L7300 for Santa Rosa (1.4 and 1.6 GHz, respectively), as well as the ultra-low voltage U7500 (1.06 GHz, 2 MB L2 cache), which will also be part of the new platform.

In the first quarter of 2007, Intel will launch new single-core mobile processors as well. The Celeron M 520 (1.6 GHz, FSB533) and 530 (1.73 GHz, FSB533) will be based on a 65 nm Merom single-core version with 1 MB L2 cache. The new 500-series will be integrated into the Napa64 platform, which is currently used by the Core 2 Duo T processors.

Santa Rosa to introduce flash cache

Santa Rosa will be Intel's value proposition for notebook buyers to upgrade to a new computer in 2007. The platform will spread across most notebook segments served by Intel, including business platforms, office, entertainment and workstation systems.

The platform consists of the PM/GM 965 chipset with an enhanced ICH8 southbridge (code-named "Crestline"), the 4965 AGN Wi-Fi chipset (code-named "Kedron"), as well as Intel's first integrated HSDPA-based, wireless broadband (WWAN) link 1965 HSD. Crestline lifts the front side bus speed from 667 to 800 MHz (while still supporting 533 MHz for lower-end processors) and supports DDR2-533 and DDR2-667 memory.

The most interesting item, however, remains Intel's flash cache technology "Robson", which will be offered as an option to be included in Intel-based notebooks. Other than in previous demonstrations, Intel apparently has increased the size of the flash cache to be included in its platform. Instead of the rumored 256 MB chip, Intel will launch Robson in Q2 2007 with 1 GB chips and offer 512 MB versions as well.

Robson demonstrated its potential in early demonstrations, when the technology was able to cut boot times of notebooks in half. While we noticed on several occurrences that Robson had issues to work properly with beta versions with Windows Vista, the technology may turn out to be a killer feature for the new operating system. It may be very well worth to wait with the operating system upgrade, until Robson notebooks are available.

Production plans

This brings us to the production and ramp schedule for Intel's new processors and platforms. The Core Duo is currently estimated to account for about 30% of Intel's total mobile processor production output, while the Core 2 Duo T-series already exceeds 40%. This scenario will change drastically in Q1 2007, when the Core 2 Duo will shift to about 60% of the production volume, the Core Duo will decrease to about 15%.

Without doubt, this environment will make Core 2 Duos much more available, and possible cheaper, as well. However, the updated (Santa Rosa) Meroms will enter the production ramp with about 5% in Q1 and reach 13% in Q2 and 25% in Q3, and assume the role of the flagship processors. At the end of the third quarter of next year, Merom dual-core processors will account for almost 80% of Intel's processor production (45% first generation Napa64 and 35% second generation Santa Rosa processors.)

The 90 nm single-core Pentium M with Dothan core has reached its last leg and will be phased out towards the end of this year, with last orders being taken in February of 2007. Intel has also plans for a phase-out of Yonah: The firm's first mobile dual-core will disappear at the end of 2007, with last orders being taken in January 2008.