The perfect in-between device—something that's as thin as a dedicated tablet and as powerful as a dedicated laptop—is something we've been promised for years. Once, it looked like the answer might come when Intel's Atom chips—Bay Trail chips, specifically—got potent enough to power highly mobile machines that could hold their own against real laptops. Atom hasn't really gotten there, but Intel's new Core M just might.
Where Bay Trail is an attempt to grow mobile architecture up to tablet and laptop dimensions, Core M is approaching the problem from the other direction—shrinking down the chips you're used to finding in your laptops and making them run on such small amounts of power (in the 5 watt range) that they can offer battery lives that rival true tablets and don't need a fan. When you don't need a fan, all kinds of new computer designs are possible. It turns out that 5 watts is the magic number to go fanless in a 10-inch tablet, and while Intel previously tried to sell 11.5 watt processors which could run at 4.5 watts for brief periods, this is the first time powerful chips have been specifically designed to fit into those creations.
That's not to say Core M is all-powerful. Devices that run on Core M chips won't be able to keep up with machines that run higher-powered (and hotter) Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 Haswell chips; you wouldn't want settle for Core M in a Macbook Pro, for instance. Nor will Core M be as powerful as the fifth-generation Core i3-i7 Broadwell chips we can expect to start seeing in early 2015. Still, Core M is set to offer performance that Bay Trail and other Atom ilk could hardly hope to reach, enabling a mix of slickness and power that we've never seen before.
Until now, PCs that turn into tablets have mostly offered the same tough choice. On the one hand, you have your chunkier but more powerful tablets that need big batteries and fans. These are the the ones that are technically tablets, but are so big and bulky that using them as such is untenable. Too hot and noisy for your lap, too heavy for one hand. Why not just get a laptop? Then you have thinner devices that feel much more like a tablet but choke under the shadow of a full Windows application. At that point, why not just get an iPad or an Android tablet?
Core M offers a chance to put the power of the first in the body of the second. Take the new Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, for instance.
Its first iteration came out in 2013 sporting a full-on Intel Core i5 processor. A pretty slick little machine, but one that required a fan—one built into the dock that blew air into vents on the tablet when attached. The new version of the Helix—powered by Core M—runs cool enough to dispense with fans entirely. That lets it shed enough weight and size to be just slightly larger than a 4th gen iPad.
And that's just a taste. Detachables like ASUS' upcoming Transformer Book T300 Chi take it even further, with a form factor that seems almost impossibly thin for a computer.
So far most of the Core M gadgets we've seen slipping out are all detachables, devices using their new fanless superpowers to take on traditionally tablet forms. But Core M will also wind up in craaaaazy thin laptops or convertibles, formats that have traditionally faired pretty well using Core i3s and 5s, and 7s.
ASUS's Zenbook UX305—one of the few non-convertible Core M devices that have been announced so far—is a beautiful peek into what that looks like.
The little catch is that Core M chips are confined to somewhat large devices, at least somewhat large as far as portable devices go. When we sat down to chat about Core M and its future, Intel stressed that Core M chips just aren't suited for devices that squeeze down into the ~8-inch field; that's still Atom's domain. Core M lets devices get thin, but it's for machines with screens at more traditional laptop sizes around the 13-inch mark, down to iPad Air screen sizes at an absolute minimum. And even at extreme, sub-9mm thicknesses, 10-inch screens can still be a bit cumbersome. There's a reason 8-inch tablets are so popular.
How the machines that sport these 14nm Cores will actually handle in practice is still up in the air. We won't know for sure until they start rolling out for real later this year. Still, it's easy to see the potential. These were the kind of transforming freak machines Windows 8 always had in mind. The ones that might put an end to that "post-PC" nonsense. The ones Atom and its promising Bay Trail variant could never quite handle.
The catch is that, for now, they are a little expensive for what you get. The Core M machines we've seen announced so far hang around the $1,100 price point. That's a lot for a tablet! But when you consider that these bad boys rep PC power in a way that other detachable devices never could before, the prices are easier to swallow. Intel thinks that, with time, Core M machines could come down as low as the $600-$700 range but only time—years, probably—will tell.
For now, we're looking at what could be the nascent stages of a landscape where detachable screens are less of a flagship feature, and more something that a lot of PC just do. That day's still a ways off, but it's closer than ever.