LAS VEGAS – Intel uncorked a small geyser of news at the Consumer Electronics Show, including word of the company’s first volume 10nm PC processor — which will be called Ice Lake — discussion of a new hybrid CPU architecture that combines different types of CPU cores in a single system on a chip (SOC) and the introduction of a new chip aimed at inference-based AI applications.

Intel also announced a new chip designed specifically to perform edge computing duties inside 5G base stations and introduced six new members of its 9th Gen iCore processor family. The company also disclosed a collaboration with Comcast to develop a 10 Gbps cable modem and a new effort to expand the PC market called Project Athena.

The announcements, voluminous in number yet light in detail (necessarily so, given time constraints), were interspersed with commentary designed to bolster the perception of Intel’s ongoing relevance, which probably says more about Wall Street than it does about Intel. Interim CEO Bob Swan did not take the CES stage.

Company representatives explained Intel has, over the years, redefined its focus from PC-centric to data-centric, and the data market (encompassing client devices, data centers, AI, edge computing and more) is an opportunity of roughly $300 billion, a number mentioned on stage at least thrice and in associated press releases many more times. One Intel exec casually noted that the $300 billion data market is the biggest target opportunity in Intel history.

Data-centric or not, company representatives referred multiple times on stage to research that indicates that people still heavily prefer to use PCs for those tasks that are important to them, tasks on which they intend to focus, a word carefully chosen and pointedly repeated, presumably to establish differentiation from, for example, vegging out watching TV, films or video. The PC market is not dead yet, and the company aims to prove it can be reinvigorated with its proposed Project Athena.

iCore, Ice Lake and Lakefield

The company announced six new 9th Gen Intel Core (iCore) processors. The first of the new devices is expected to be available starting this month with other versions rolling out through the second quarter of this year. Intel is highlighting game system performance with this line.

The new Ice Lake processor is the first Intel CPU based on the new Sunny Cove architecture that Intel detailed in December. It is the first Intel CPU to incorporate the next generation of WiFi (WiFi6), and the first integrated with Thunderbolt 3, which is Intel’s take on USB-C. It will also include DL Boost, the generic term Intel uses for a set of AI acceleration techniques and technologies.

Intel, Ice Lake SoC Gregory Bryant, Intel senior vice president in the Client Computing Group, shows a 10nm Ice Lake SoC. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel)

Ice Lake is a member of Intel’s Xeon processor family, which has become firmly entrenched in the data center market. The company said it will have a version specifically for data centers by 2020.

But there’s also a client version of Ice Lake. Gregory M. Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Client Computing Group, said at the Intel event Monday that this will enable equipment manufacturers to put deep learning on client devices.

Hybrid SoC

The on-stage demo the client version of Ice Lake this pitted two PCs against each other, one equipped with an iCore 8 processor and the other with an Ice Lake, each sifting through hundreds of photographs looking for images that include water. The latter machine performed the job roughly 1.5 times faster, and Bryant said the PCs that hit the market later this year will be able to do the trick roughly two times faster.

He said this version of Ice Lake has already been implemented in silicon and is now being incorporated in several builds. He promised that PCs incorporating Ice Lake will be available by the holiday season later this year. Sam Burd, the president of Dell’s Client Solutions Group, was invited on stage just long enough to gush about Ice Lake and attest that Dell will be using it in forthcoming products.

Intel, Ice Lake Bryant holds up a Lakefield reference board. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel)

Intel also announced a new hybrid system on a chip (SoC) approach that allow a new processor that Intel is calling “Lakefield.” The SoCs are “hybrid” in that they can incorporate different types of cores with each other. The example Bryant showed was an SoC with five cores — one 10nm Sunny Cove-based core with four Atom processors.

The SoC relies on the company’s new Foveros architecture, which enables Intel to physically stack IP blocks one above the other. This architecture drives longer battery life and improved performance, the company says, and leads to smaller chips and smaller boards.

Intel,  3D packaging Side view diagram of Intel's Foveros 3D packaging technology. (Source: Intel)

To that latter point, Bryant held up a PC motherboard with a Lakefield SoC; the board measured perhaps 2 inches by 5.5 inches (that’s an eyeball estimate from the cheap seats) which he declared is “the smallest ever entire PC motherboard.”

The Lakefield chip will be in production later this year. The company has already created a number of reference designs for client devices in a variety of form factors, some reminiscent of tablets, others in brand new configurations, all able to behave like a full-sized PC or laptop.

Which leads into Project Athena.

Project Athena

As noted above, Intel believes there’s life in the PC business yet. Remember “focus”? This is that. Project Athena is a program in which Intel vows to help develop a new class of advanced laptops and perhaps other client devices in other configurations. The company promised these products would have world-class performance and extended battery life.

The company didn’t say what chips would be used, but the juxtaposition with the discussions about new 9th Gen iCores, Ice Lake and Lakefield, their increased performance, improved power savings, and small size cannot help but lead to the obvious inference: Intel’s latest chips will enable the next wave of computer products.

Project Athena partners include Acer, Asus, Dell, Google, HP, Innolux, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung and Sharp, among others. The company said the first Project Athena laptops are expected to be available in the second half of this year across both Windows and Chrome operating systems.

AI, 5G, CM

And the hits just kept on coming. Navin Shenoy, Intel executive vice president in the Data Center Group, announced the Intel Nervana Neural Network Processor for Inference (NNP-I). To review, AI problems come in two general categories: learning and inference. Inference is more complex, is much harder to do, and because of that tends to be done much less frequently.

In 2016, Intel bought Nervana Systems for $400 million, assuming — like everyone else — that AI would eventually be built into a great many products and systems. On Monday, Intel announced that the NNP-I will go into production later this year.

Intel, Nervana NPU Intel plans to put the Nervana Neural Network Processor for Inference into production this year. (Source: Intel)

Where might this chip be used? Facebook, Shenoy reminded, is one of Intel’s development partners on the NNP-I. Facebook currently uses inference for auto-tagging.

Additionally, Intel is expected to have a Neural Network Processor for Training, code-named “Spring Crest,” available later this year.

Also in AI, Intel is working with Alibaba on a system that uses simple video to capture movement. The first application will be to analyze athletes’ performance. The technology can be used to compare and contrast the performance of two athletes so that, for example, during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, you can quickly see how the strides of sprinters compare, or how the rotational movement of shot-putters match up. That same data can be used in performance training.

As Intel explained it, computer vision with AI deep learning algorithms will generate a 3D mesh from which biomechanical data can be extracted in real-time. That’s in contrast to the type of image capture that might be familiar from the film industry, where an actor is studded with dots for motion tracking, rendering a moving mesh that can be the basis for creating graphics-based characters such as King Kong, Smaug, or Thanos.

Yet another new chip Intel announced was a 10nm-based network system on chip (SoC), code-named “Snow Ridge” developed specifically for 5G wireless base stations.

Intel, Navin Shenoy Navin Shenoy, Intel executive vice president in the Data Center Group, motions to a 5G base station prototype.(Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel)

Many advanced 5G applications require exceedingly low latencies for real-time processing to support any number of applications; a common example is supporting autonomous vehicles. The trend had been to ship processing tasks off to distant data centers, but these new applications requiring lower latency requires placing more computational resources locally — at the network edge.

Intel dominates in data centers, so it’s a smart play for the company to try to extend its influence to the network edge with an SoC designed for wireless access base stations. Snow Ridge is expected to be available in the second half of this year.

Back in 2010, Intel purchased Texas Instruments’ cable modem (CM) business. In the past two years or so, the cable industry has been rolling out 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) broadband service. That service is asymmetrical; download speeds are far faster than upload speeds. On Monday. Bryant said Intel is collaborating with the world’s biggest cable company, Comcast, on a new cable modem that will eventually boost cable broadband rates to 10 Gbps symmetrical.