At this year’s Intel Innovation developer conference, CEO Pat Gelsinger proclaimed “We are ushering in a new age of AI PC.” He was talking about the next generation of Intel notebook PC processors, code named Meteor Lake. Meteor Lake incorporates a new Neural Processing Unit (NPU) to service AI workloads on edge devices and as Gelsinger says, “unleashing personal productivity and creativity.”
To prove the point, Gelsinger brought Jerry Kao, COO of Acer on stage at Innovation to demo the suite of Acer AI applications built with Intel’s assistance and the OpenVINO toolkit. It included a built-in AI image generation and a parallax responsive screen wallpaper effect based on eye tracking.
You get an NPU, and you get an NPU, and…
While Meteor Lake’s new NPU is a ground-breaking change to Intel PC processors, it’s not the first NPU in a PC processor. It comes on the heels of AMD’s Ryzen 7040 series of notebook processors with Ryzen AI NPUs. And neither AMD nor Intel are the first to bring an NPU to Windows PCs – Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors for Windows-on-Arm PCs have all had Hexagon NPUs, which is part of the Qualcomm Artificial Intelligence (AI) Engine. Perhaps Microsoft saw the benefits of NPUs in Windows based on its Snapdragon experience, and it encouraged AMD and Intel to add NPUs as well. Why else would both AMD and Intel be adding NPUs at the same time? Or, it could be that Apple having a Neural Engine in its M1 processor for its Arm-based Mac and MacBook products signaled that NPUs are now going to be a significant processing element in all PCs going forward. In any case, Windows PCs will soon have significant AI capability, something smartphones have had for some time.
Built with Intel Foveros
Intel has also stepped up its game on chiplets (which Intel likes to call “tiles”). Chiplets are smaller functional units on separate silicon die that can be combined in a package to form the system-on-chip (SoC). In the past, SoCs tended to have all the components on one larger silicon die, called a monolithic die. AMD pioneered the chiplet approach with its Ryzen and Epyc processors and still uses it today. Intel has used chiplets and advanced packaging for server and FPGA processors with either its EMIB or Foveros technologies.
Intel’s approach for Meteor Lake uses its Foveros technology, which stacks the chiplet die on a carrier or base die. The base die has interconnects routing to connect the four chiplets that form a Meteor Lake processor. Each chiplet has a distinct function and a distinct semiconductor process.
The four chiplets are: the Compute Tile, the SoC Tile, the Graphics Tile and the IO Tile.
The Compute Tile combines the performance “P” x86 cores and the efficient “E” CPU cores with the CPU memory caches. This chiplet is built on the Intel 4 process that uses EUV processing. Most of the heavy CPU processing takes place in the Compute Tile. Intel’s Thread Director manages how each type of core is used for a particular workload. A video game will likely be allocated to the P cores, while a network stack can run fine on E cores.
In a bid to further improve battery life, Intel placed additional E cores on the SoC Tile. This second set of E cores are optimized for even lower power. The SoC Tile also includes the media and display processors, memory controllers and the NPU. This power-optimized chiplet can play video without powering up the Compute Tile or the Graphics Tile, making it a power-efficient media processor.
The SOC Tile is produced using the TSMC 6nm process, which means Intel had to transfer its E cores to the TSMC process.
The Graphics Tile uses the TSMC N5 process. It’s based on Intel’s latest Arc GPU generation and offers twice the graphics performance of its predecessor. The IO Tile has PCIe Gen 5 and Thunderbolt 4.
Intel will be able to mix and match its chiplets using different process nodes and different fabs to offer optimized SKUs for different segments. It may also reuse tiles in future products. Chiplets combined with Intel’s EMIB and Foveros packaging technologies provides Intel additional product flexibility and cost optimizations. The company has applied its leading-edge Intel 4 processor where it’s needed – in the CPU complex.
Intel also laid out its roadmap for notebooks: “Fresh out of the fab with our Arrow Lake processor,” Pat says, built on the Intel 20A process. “It’s working as expected.” It will be followed by Lunar Lake in 2024 and Panther Lake in 2025. Panther Lake is scheduled for a Q1/2024 tape out and will use the Intel 18A process. Those process call outs are probably only for the Compute Tiles.
Intel has pushed its advantage in packaging to a new level and this disaggregated processor signals a new future for its PC processors. With the addition of an NPU, you can expect new local AI capabilities on PCs running on Intel and a more personal PC.
Intel’s new Meteor Lake notebook processor will be sold under the Intel Core Ultra brand and will launch on December 14th. We expect to hear about new desktop processors from Intel later in the year. And while Meteor Lake is designed for notebooks, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in some innovative desktop products in 2024.
Tirias Research tracks and consults for companies throughout the electronics ecosystem from semiconductors to systems and sensors to the cloud. Members of the Tirias Research team have consulted for AMD, Arm, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and other companies throughout the CPU and GPU ecosystems.