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Benchmarking Bay Trail, Intel’s New Atom Tablet Platform
SAN FRANCISCO—For years, Intel has struggled to break free of its desktop computing roots and be recognized as a mobile company worthy of competing against current industry leaders such as Nvidia and Qualcomm. With today’s debut of Intel’s Bay Trail processing platform, the successor to the entry-level, Atom-based Clover Trail platform it released last year, the ARM race would once again seem to be on.
In conjunction with this year’s Intel Developer Forum, Intel invited us to its campus in Santa Clara, California, to see how Bay Trail fares against the current mobile leaders and the preceding generation of its own Clover Trail–based devices.
It’s important to state at this point that the tablets we tested were Intel reference units, not finished consumer products, so some significant differences could exist between these and final production models. That said, the hardware we were given was based on the new Intel Atom Z3770 processor and 2GB of LPDDR3-1067 RAM, which we hope provides a decent approximation of a system you may be able to someday buy.
Because Bay Trail is not operating system dependent, and because Intel had Windows 8.1 and Android 4.2.2 tablets available, we ran as many benchmark applications as we could from our mobile (used to assess ARM-based tablets) and PC (x86) testing suites.
We also typically run Rightware’s Browsermark, but after several attempts (using the default browser and Chrome) we were not able to get that test to complete successfully on the Android tablet. It did, however, finish running on the Windows tablet, under the desktop version of Internet Explorer 10. The score we saw there of 3,044 would put it at the front of the pack, with its closest competitors being the Nvidia Shield (with 2,916) and the HP SlateBook x2 (2,787).
Our graphics test was a slightly different story. In GFXBench 2.7.2, the Bay Trail system managed only 41 frames per second (fps) on the off-screen test and 30fps on the on-screen test; these are generally playable, if less than spectacular results. They also don’t surpass what we’ve seen from a number of other systems. The gaming-focused Nvidia Shield is significantly speedier (63fps off-screen, 59fps on-screen), as you’d expect, but so are the current-generation Apple iPad (42fps off-screen, 52fps on-screen), the new Google Nexus 7 (39fps off-screen, 40fps on-screen), and the aforementioned HP SlateBook x2 (50fps off-screen, 44fps on-screen).
The overarching impact of Bay Trail is much easier to observe when a tablet using it is equipped with a more standard PC operating system. Intel promised notable upswings in performance compared with systems based on Clover Trail, and that’s exactly what we saw.
To put it nicely, the Bay Trail reference model obliterated the Atom Z2760–based systems that have come before it. Its PCMark 7 score of 2,560 was markedly higher than those of the closest contenders, the Asus VivoTab Smart ME400C (which scored 1,438) and the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (1,410). Whereas those systems required huge chunks of time to complete our HandBrake video conversion test (Lenovo’s tablet was the fastest, needing 5 minutes 16 seconds), Bay Trail wrapped up the task in just 2:17. Its rendering score in CineBench R11.5 was an eye-popping improvement as well: 1.47, almost two and a half times the next-highest result (the 0.63 of the HP ElitePad 900).
As for gaming, those other tablets couldn’t even run our 3DMark 11 benchmark test, but the Bay Trail model could—and scored 337 on the Entry (lowest) preset. And this is strictly anecdotal, but it’s worth mentioning: On an intense round of testing with Team Fortress 2 during the benchmarking session I attended, the Bay Trail tablet proved capable but not stellar, while a colleague of mine accurately described the experience of playing the game on a Clover Trail tablet as watching “a slideshow.”
A Tablet Platform Still for PC Users
Intel’s success and impact in the computing realm are inarguable and unparalleled, and the company has continued to prove with each successive year that it deserves what it’s earned. The original Clover Trail release last year marked a vital proof of concept, but Bay Trail comes even closer to seeing that promise fulfilled—on the PC side.
There, if you’re looking for a really simple, no-frills tablet capable of running basic Windows 8.1 programs, you’re in luck in a way you might not have even been able to imagine at this point in 2012. Doubling (or more) a platform’s processing power across a single generation is a rare event, but Intel has made it happen, and transformed a somewhat iffy proposition into one that the right kind of user can feel secure about.
The caveat, of course, is that the low-end consumer tablet PC market is a wide-open field. The Android market is an entirely different story, and a nut that Intel has still not completely cracked. Comparable processing power but less-than-leading graphics performance sticks Intel in the not-too-desirable middle of the pack.
PCMag.com’s lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, pinpointed Intel’s dilemma quite accurately when I asked him about it. “The problem is that for Intel, matching in power just isn’t good enough,” he said. “Intel has to actually dislodge incumbents here. If its SOC isn’t more powerful (and it doesn’t appear to be) is it much more power-efficient than the ARM leaders? That’s hard to believe. Will it be cheaper than competitors from companies like Mediatek? Also hard to believe. I’m still not seeing why OEMs would pick x86 for Android here.”
We’ll have a firmer grasp on that once final products hit consumers’ hands (and our testing lab), probably within the next couple of weeks or so. But from what we’ve seen so far, Bay Trail doesn’t appear to be the game-changer that will instantly make Intel a leading force in the Android world. Even considering the PC market, Bay Trail provides no serious competition to products based on Intel’s Core architecture—but competing with its bigger, stronger brother was never the point of Bay Trail anyway. We’re excited to see whether its lower-level PC tablet innovations catch on, and if they do, then a few ripples could definitely start. But no major waves are on the horizon just yet.
By Matthew Murray, PCMag