Intel’s Hybrid Architecture and What it Means for the Future of PCs
Hot on the heels of CES 2022, Gadgets 360 was able to sit down for an exclusive interview with Gregory Bryant, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Client Computing Group, Intel. The company’s virtual CES keynote this year, presented by Bryant, was packed with announcements about new 12th Gen desktop and laptop CPUs, all based on the ‘Alder Lake’ hybrid design which combines two completely different core architectures for the first time.
Off stage, the 30-year Intel veteran also talked with us about new form factors, what went into developing the 12th Gen CPU lineup, and how the market for laptops and desktop PCs is changing and growing. Here’s Part 1 of our conversation.
Gadgets 360: Let’s start by talking about Intel’s 12th Gen hybrid architecture. Why now? What made this the right time to do it after saying that big.Little is not something you want to emulate?
Gregory Bryant: Maybe there are two ways to answer that. One, on our efficient cores, we’ve made tremendous progress over the last few years in driving extremely high performance and performance per Watt, in addition to the kind of bursty, scalable performance that you get on the performance cores. I would say it’s a combination of making very rapid progress on our efficient cores in particular and then, number two, it’s the evolving nature of the workload. One of the examples that we showed [during Intel’s virtual CES press event] was gaming and streaming. It’s pervasive, almost every gamer I know is viewing and sharing on Twitch or other platforms. The same thing goes for people who are doing content creation. I showed some content creation examples so I think that lends itself particularly well to Hybrid Architecture.
Then the last thing I would say is our implementation is different than Big.little; it’s different than the way others have tried to do a multi-core architecture. I like to say it’s big and bigger! Our little? it’s not little, It’s big! Our efficient cores are very performant, so I think our implementation is also different than what’s been tried in the past.
Gadgets 360: So how do you decide the balance of P-cores and E-cores for different segments?
Bryant: That’s a great question. We focus on big usage categories, and we have a whole team inside the Intel that’s working on what we call Key Experience Indicators (KEIs). Most people would think of KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators, so [it’s like that]. What we do is we break down usages like gaming and streaming, content creation, business productivity, and video collaboration. These are real examples, they’re not hypothetical. We break down these usage models and categories into specific tasks and sub tasks.
Then I have architects and technologists that break that all the way down to the hardware, workload, even the trace level. Then we say, OK, how do we best optimise the products we build for those segments? It’s really at that level of detail. It’s fascinating, and it’s a capability that we’ve built over the last, I’d say, 2-3 years on the back of our Evo platform. I’m very proud of it. And so that really leads us to say, hey, what’s the optimal [experience]? Obviously there’s no one size fits all, but what are the best types of configurations we can provide in various segments?
Gadgets 360: How does that change when you’re deciding things like this for laptops versus desktops? E-cores are presumably better when you’re dealing with battery power, but on the other hand, you’ve still got a certain expectation of a workload that you can do if you’re at a Core i3, i5 or i7 tier, price-wise.
Bryant: I would think of it like a two-tiered structure. First, what’s the overall configuration? At the largest macro sense, how are things set up? Then there’s the micro – how do workloads run on which processors and in which context? A desktop that’s plugged in will behave differently than a thin-and-light laptop. Intel Thread Director is our software working in the operating system in collaboration with Microsoft, or Google and Chrome, that is learning and making intelligent choices about where to run those threads. Do I run them on the efficient cores, do I run them on the big cores?
We did a fair amount of study to understand what types of workloads we think work best, but we’re also building intelligence into the system so that these decisions can be made dynamically. I expect that through machine learning, over time, we’ll get better and better at making these micro individual choices about where workloads run.
It’s pretty exciting! I think we’re at the start of a journey where we’re going to learn, learn, learn, and get better and better optimisations across these cores.
Gadgets 360: From what you just said, there is a Thread Director equivalent for Chrome OS? There has been demand for that on Linux and I don’t know if there’s any announcement on any progress towards that.
Bryant: It’s not called Intel Thread Director, but we’ve worked with them on the scheduler. It’s not branded, but we still work with Chrome on how those workloads show up on which cores. So it’s not exactly the same; I was [being] more conceptual – higher level. Thread Director is Windows. There’s a version of the scheduler. We haven’t announced anything on [Linux] to date, but we have worked on the scheduler to take advantage of the P-cores and E-cores, and my intent would be to make those things more intelligent over time, both for Linux and Chrome.
Gadgets 360: Looking at the spec sheets that you guys put out, most of the desktop [mainstream 12th Gen Core] SKUs only have P-cores. Where does the premise of Hybrid Architecture go in that case for those buyers?
Bryant: Well, it really depends on the choices that people want to make for what they intend to do. I think if you’re on a desktop, you’re plugged in to power, your focus is maximum performance. And we talked about the KS [Core i9-12900KS] on stage, for example, bringing single-core turbo frequencies up to 5.5 GHz. As you know, hey, that’s not for everyone, but there are certain games and certain scenarios where very high-performance cores and single-core turbo frequency peak matters a lot.
Those buyers, I think, are very intelligent. Obviously people who buy that kind of product know what they’re looking for, they understand the workload they’re running, and they’ll go seek that single-core peak. There are other people that that’s less important to; they want better multi-threaded performance. And then to your point, there are going to be other buyers who say “Hey, I have a lot of background tasks, stuff that I want to get out of the way that could run on lower power; I want those on E-cores”.
That really depends on the buyer, and I think our job – and this will take time, it won’t be immediate – is to help show the performance, the scenarios, and help people make the best choice for the type of work that they that they do. That’s the journey we’re on now, and we’ll invest in the marketing and positioning with our OEM, retail, and channel partners to do that the best we can.
Gadgets 360: A lot of attention is usually focused on the top-end ‘hero’ products of each lineup, but Celeron and Pentium configurations were announced as well. Do you see any specific sort of use case or form factors for that level of CPU, which has four E-cores and one P-core? What changes for more affordable laptops?
Bryant: Well, certainly, I think hitting another place on the price performance curve is actually very important – you downplayed that in the question! It’s very important to make the system more affordable and to have higher performance in a world where we’re all using our PCs more and more every day for video calls, collaboration, and education.
So, this generation, I would consider the Jasper Lake products [based on Tremont E-cores] a sizeable leap forward in price-performance. That’s important to us. We are big enough that we play in every segment of the market, top to bottom, so doing a refresh of those products was important to us. There are significant amounts of customers in those segments in the market.
Gadgets 360: Particularly in India, there’s still a lot of love for netbooks. There are people looking for functional and affordable PCs, and that segment seems to have been neglected a little bit. Do you see anything fresh on that level?
Bryant: Yeah I think that’s a great example. If your usage model is getting online, browsing the Internet, shopping, light productivity, media consumption, it’s a great set of products and I think it would be a fine replacement older, less performant systems that might be four or five years old. I think that would be a very good choice.
Gadgets 360: The other reason for asking is that these configurations with one P-core and multiple E-cores mirror what you guys did with Lakefield, and there isn’t a premium tier replacement for that in the lineup. Manufacturers won’t be trying to sell a super-premium foldable with a Celeron, so was that segment just an experiment?
Bryant: Lakefield was the first place where we did Hybrid Architecture and Foveros for the first time. It wasn’t an experiment; it was a trailblazing product, and we learned this packaging technology and hybrid configuration, which as you pointed out, is becoming the basis of the entire roadmap. I don’t think most people saw that coming!
We are absolutely thinking about premium, let’s call them more ultra-mobile forms of the product line. I didn’t make announcements at CES, but there’s more. There’s at least one more version of Alder Lake to come that we haven’t PRQ’d [Production Release Qualified] yet.
Stay tuned for more information, there’ll be some more products. Some of them will not look like Lakefield, but some of them will be [aimed] at those segments over time.
Gadgets 360: So what is the state of foldables and ultra-premium products like that? Because you now have the balance of P-cores and E-cores, does Alder Lake go into more slim-and-light fanless form factors? What changes can we expect for laptops in general?
Bryant: From a scalability perspective, this Hybrid Architecture with P-cores and E-cores in various configurations gives you a huge dynamic range of power-performance; a much wider range than we had in the past. That is an incredibly important point. That will enable us to go into more form factors, more tablet-like form factors now and out in time, with good performance. That is absolutely part of the direction and the strategy. I have nothing new to announce at this second, but you’re picking up on the trend.
In Part 2 of our exclusive interview, coming up soon, Gregory Bryant discusses what’s new with the Evo platform, how Intel is coping with global semiconductor supply issues, and how the pandemic has reshaped our expectations of PCs.
Catch the latest from the Consumer Electronics Show on Gadgets 360, at our CES 2022 hub.
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