We knew Intel’s Meteor Lake would usher in a significant new era with a design that packed a few “microchips” like pancakes into a single next-generation PC processor. But now we know something else: One of these tiny chips will contain an ultra-low-power CPU that can keep your laptop running without too much damage to its battery.
Intel revealed details of the new design at its Innovation Conference on Tuesday along with some details about Meteor Lake’s successors, Arrow Lake, Lunar Lake, and Panther Lake. CEO Pat Gelsinger also provided a status report on his efforts over the years to regain Intel’s lost processor design and manufacturing leadership. Meteor Lake, scheduled to ship on December 14 and for the last batch of laptops of the year, is the focus of one phase of that effort.
Apple’s M series processors, which power MacBook laptops with long battery lives and no noisy cooling fans, have demonstrated the advantages of processor efficiency. Meteor Lake will hold up in two important ways, and if Intel delivers what it promises, it will mean better laptops for the millions of us who use Windows laptops.
See also: Inside Intel’s chip factory, I saw the future. It’s plain old glass
The first is an update to the main brain within the Meteor Lake design, which is a small chip called a “Compute Tile” that includes a group of CPU (central processing unit) cores. As with Intel’s current Alder Lake processors, officially called 13th Generation Core, the processor will include both large, high-performance CPU cores for more demanding tasks and smaller efficiency cores for lower-priority work and better battery life. Intel said the CPU cores in Meteor Lake have updated, more efficient designs that are built using the new Intel 4 manufacturing process which is also more efficient.
But within another chip, the system-on-a-chip (SOC), more efficient CPU cores reside on a “low-power island.” The processor switches software tasks between performance and efficiency cores several times every second for best results, and unused cores can be turned off to save battery power.
“For the best efficiency, you’ll see the workloads bounce around the cores a lot,” said Tim Wilson, vice president of the engineering group who led the SOC design. “For many people, battery life today is as important as the performance in their computers. Meteor Lake will shine at both.”
The chip will also offer new graphics acceleration capabilities on its GPU and AI tasks on its NPU. Both of these dimensions are fundamental to performance in modern devices, especially high-end computers used for tasks such as gaming or video and photo editing.
Personal computers aren’t powerful enough to run large, sophisticated language models like ChatGPT, but AI technology is being used for tasks like selecting image subjects in Adobe Lightroom and removing backgrounds and audio noise in Microsoft Teams video conferencing.
New graphics brains for Meteor Lake
With the Meteor Lake processors, which the company will sell under the Core Ultra brand, Intel is launching its next generation of integrated graphics, Xe LPG. The LPG operates more efficiently than the previous generation Xe LP, theoretically reaching higher frequencies with lower voltage to improve battery life.
The LPG also brings some important capabilities from the company’s Xe HPG discrete graphics to the GPU chip.
It includes all the essentials for DirectX 12 Ultimate support: dedicated ray tracing accelerators (one per graphics core, with up to 8 cores per GPU), mesh shader support, variable rate shading, and sample feedback.
The architecture also adds support for Intel’s upscaling technology, XeSS (Xe Super Sampling), which is based in part on artificial intelligence. XeSS enables Endurance Gaming Mode – Intel’s proprietary power saving mode that combines aggressive scaling with CPU throttling for those times when you desperately need to hit the battery checkpoint.
With LPG, laptops using Core Ultra chips get support for a single 8K 60Hz display with 10-bit HDR decoding and encoding, or four displays at 4K 60Hz HDR, 1440p 360Hz, or 1080p 360Hz, as well as HDMI 2.1.
TSMC, Intel’s competitor and partner
Intel is under fierce competitive pressure. During the years when manufacturing progress stalled, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and Samsung surpassed Intel’s massive technological lead.
So did competitors who make the chips. AMD has been making inroads into Intel’s market share, especially in the server market where data centers are filled with thousands of high-end processors. Nvidia has tapped into the huge demand for AI processors. Apple ditched Intel processors and instead moved to its M-series processors that offered convincing performance and lower power consumption. TSMC builds processors for all three of Intel’s major competitors.
But strangely enough, TSMC is not just a competitor of Intel. He’s also a partner. They manufacture most of the small slides within Lake Meteor.
TSMC builds Meteor Lake’s SOC tile — the small chip that houses the low-power island, AI accelerator, video decoding system, and Wi-Fi system — in its N6 manufacturing process. This is also used in the I/O panel, which handles input and output tasks such as Thunderbolt and USB connections.
TSMC’s most advanced N5 process is used to build Meteor Lake’s Arc GPU system. Intel said it will deliver twice the performance and twice the performance per watt compared to 13th generation Alder Lake processors.
Under Gelsinger’s leadership, Intel is transforming its chipmaking business by becoming a “foundry” like TSMC and Samsung that builds chips for other customers. It has attracted a few customers, but business is not expected to pick up in earnest until Intel’s 18A manufacturing process arrives, scheduled for 2024.
Small slices ahoy
Meteor Lake’s “bespoke” design, enabled by Intel’s microchip assembly technology called Foveros, is a sign of things to come for the processor industry.
AMD packs fast cache into its high-end PC processors, and Apple’s M2 Ultra consists of two M2 Max chips connected by a high-speed communication bridge. But Intel is more aggressive in its chip strategy, partly because it needs to try to play catch-up with competitors, said Ben Bajarin, a Creative Strategies analyst.
With the Sapphire Rapids
Packaging different chips increases manufacturing cost and time, but also offers a variety of advantages. Different manufacturing processes can be used for different chips to improve attributes such as cost, power consumption, and performance. Smaller chips are less susceptible to manufacturing defects.
Intel’s glass substrate technology, also detailed at the Innovation Conference, paves the way for more advanced chip approaches. This glass – the foundation of the package containing the processor – offers better advantages in speed, power and size than today’s technology.
Meteor Lake doesn’t use glass substrates, which isn’t expected to arrive until later this decade, but it demonstrates Intel’s packaging skill. For example, to combat warping, which means processors are bent slightly like a potato chip, Intel uses solder balls of different sizes to compensate and ensure good electrical contacts.
Intel can also use up to four types of solder balls in its processes, for example, making judicious use of the more complex core copper balls for power connections. The company demonstrated this “multi-ball” technology on a tour of its advanced packaging research laboratories in Chandler, Arizona.
“As we look to the next five to 10 years, this packaging process will become even more important,” said Tom Rucker, vice president responsible for Intel’s assembly integration business.