Tablet Design Hackers Hunt for Microseconds and Milliwatts

by Ken Kaplan
Executive Editor
, iQ by Intel

A team of hackers inside Intel uses tricks to fine tune prototypes that lead to thinner, better performing tablets and 2 in 1 devices.

Francios Piednoel’s quest to make the best performing tablet has been a microscopic battle against the laws of physics.

His mission to find the right balance of performance and battery consumption convinced him to recruit a band of crafty young hackers.

Francios Piednoel

When he took on the challenge to build the best performing tablet in 2013, Piednoel said processor speed wasn’t the only thing on the list he needed to optimize.

“We have a lot of expertise in processors and graphics, but we needed experts in audio, touch and other areas,” said Piednoel, a principal engineer and computer systems analyst at Intel.

So he plucked talented people straight out of college and from his own network, assembling them into a tight knit team to work in a lab located behind Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

He described the team as a mix of academically trained engineers and self-made tinkerers.

tablet hackers at Intel

“Michael is the king of hacking electronics and software together. Nathan is good at hacking software and form factor mechanics. Damon taught us about the science and mathematics behind best touch systems. Our audio expert is a professional musician.”

He said he didn’t hire individuals based on their diploma but on what they were capable of doing. They had to be clever and fast.

“We’re counting milliwatts and moving from microseconds to milliseconds to create faster, cooler, smoother experiences. It’s all about getting more speed on lower power.”

They tinkered with existing tablets to understand how they were built, looking for things they’d like to improve.

3D image of tablet design

They created 3D models of tablet skins and components then moved things around virtually looking for potential design improvements that could save materials or lower power consumption.

They even built their own functioning tablets, from casting the casing to fitting all of the components together.

They experimented with metal skins — one with an aluminum chassis, a gold-plated aluminum one and one made of copper — to test heat dissipation.

copper-, aluminum-, and gold-plated tablet prototypes

“We wanted to build the best possible tablet with ideal thermal requirements. We figured out things one by one, then understand the best way to systematize everything together to get right balance of power and performance,” Piednoel said.

Building these prototypes also led them to create software code and recommendations for fine-tuning new devices built with the Intel Core M processor, a system on a chip designed for tablets and 2 in 1 computers.

Francios Piednoel with aluminum tablet prototype Core M

The Intel Core M processor runs at 4.5 watts, which is more than half the watts required to power the previous generation of Intel Core processors.

Piednoel said this allowed designers to make devices without a processor cooling fan.

“Five watts is easily fanless,” he said. “With our various proof-of-concept tablets, made with different materials, we showed that a tablet could be built using a processor that runs at 7.5 watts without requiring a fan.”

Piednoel has built a reputation based on his keen determination and unconventional approach to pushing PC performance to their limits. In 2010, he moved from focusing on desktop PCs to tablets, and became a sort of pied piper in the fledgling tablet industry.

His mastery of math and computer code, along with his team’s Oculus device-testing robot, helped speed up performance of first- and second-generation Intel Atom processor-powered tablets so they responded smoothly at 60 frames per second.

Piednoel points out that tablets — as well as smartphones and phablets — operate different than laptop or desktop computers. These differences create challenges for designers of new 2 in 1 devices that switch between operating as a tablet and a laptop.

“The Core M was designed to adapt to both modes seamlessly. It has two very capable cores that handle spikes in demand without cutting operations into many pieces to get it done quickly.”

Intel llama mountain 2 in 1 at Computex2014

When Intel President Renee James introduced the Intel Core M processor at Computex in July 2014, she called it “the most energy-efficient processor in Intel’s history.” She showed a 7.2 millimeters thin prototype tablet codenamed Llama Mountain that weighed 672 grams and docks to a keyboard to become a laptop.

About six months later, Asus released the razor thin Transformer Book t300 Chi based on the Llama Mountain design. Piednoel calls it one of the most innovative 2 in 1 devices to date.

He said his hacker team’s work on tablets has speed up innovation in mobile devices, and their work is leading to new explorations.

“We can look at almost any form factor and determine the right balance of performance and power consumption,” he said.

In many ways, Piednoel takes the fruits of Moore’s Law and pushes them to the edge to find tiny improvements that collectively result in better mobile computing experiences. While the doubling transistors every couple of years isn’t directly resulting in a doubling of processor clock speeds, it is helping engineers tackle economics of power requirements for all kinds of computing devices.

“I like imagining what we will do four years from now, when smartphones and smaller mobile devices with Core M-level processors are powered by only quarter of the energy needed today.”

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