Windows 8 on x86 Tablets This Fall?

Acer and Lenovo may release tablets in the third quarter of this year.

Sometime mid-year we may see tablets that run Windows 8 on Intel's x86 "Clover Trail" system-on-chip (SoC) silicon from Acer and Lenovo, according to a media report.

The timing of the new tablets, scheduled for release in the "third quarter of 2012" according to a DigiTimes story, would match expectations for Windows 8's release. Microsoft hasn't yet provided a final release date for the operating system, but a beta is expected in late February.

DigiTimes reported late last year that Dell and HP were planning tablets running Windows 8 to be produced in the third quarter, claims DigiTimes. Nokia is planning to release such a tablet by June 2012, according to published comments by Paul Amsellem, head of Nokia France.

What's less clear are Intel's plans for Clover Trail, which is part of Intel's Atom line of low-power chips. An Intel spokesperson, Mark Miller, described Clover Trail as "a vehicle for Windows 8 tablets and hybrids," according to a CNET story. A timeline, compiled from a press report in Wikipedia, estimates the release of the 32-nm Clover Trail chips in the second half of 2012, which squares with the third-quarter timing described in the DigiTimes report.

Intel plans to release its Atom-based 32-nm Medfield SoC processors in the first half of this year, according to Wikipedia's timeline. Medfield is designed for smartphones and tablets. It was initially designed for the Android mobile OS and Intel's MeeGo mobile OS, according to Sean Maloney, executive vice president at Intel, during a talk at Computex 2011. It's not clear if Windows 8 would run on Medfield.

To date, most reports about Medfield are associated with the Android mobile OS for smartphones. LG and Intel are rumored to be planning to exhibit a smartphone running the Android OS -- purportedly using Intel's Medfield chip -- at this year's Computer Electronics Show (CES) beginning next week.

Intel also announced last week that it released its code-named "Cedar Trail" 32-nm Atom chips. The company explained in a press statement that "Netbooks will be available in early 2012 from major OEMs including Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and Toshiba" that will use the new chip. The supported OSes were not listed in the announcement.

Intel is also pushing a thin laptop design called "ultrabooks." These systems will be based on next-generation 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors (not part of the Atom line). Ultrabooks will later get power-saving Intel Haswell chips, according to an Intel publication (PDF). Intel expects laptops based on Ivy Bridge to start appearing in the "first half of 2012," according to a blog post. Ultrabooks will run Windows 8, according to recent comments from Paul Otellini, Intel's CEO. A recent Electronista article suggested that Intel plans to compete in the tablet market against ARM with the ultrabook line.

At last year's CES, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer promised that "Windows Next" (now called "Windows 8") would run on ARM-based silicon as well as SoCs from Intel and AMD. Ballmer didn't name the x86 SoC platforms, which could be Intel's Medfield or Clover Trail or AMD's Fusion platforms.

Ballmer will deliver the keynote address at this year's CES event, his last at the show. However, a GigaOM story, citing an unnamed Microsoft insider, claimed that Microsoft wasn't quitting the keynote but was actually booted from that position by event organizers.

Windows 8 represents a unification of sorts between Microsoft's desktop OS for PCs with its mobile OS for tablets. Windows 8 is touch-enabled by design. PCs and tablets running Windows 7 with a touch user interface are currently available, but Windows 8 with its new "Metro-style" touch UI is expected to better accelerate Microsoft's flagging tablet market position.

Microsoft already faces diminishing consumer interest in tablets running Windows, according to a Forrester Research report>, even as it prepares renewed competition against Apple's iOS and Android with Windows 8. The Forrester report, published in late November, ranked Microsoft fifth in the tablet OS market after Apple's iPad, Android, HP's webOS and the BlackBerry PlayBook. An earlier study by Gartner suggested that Microsoft could inch up in the tablet market to attain third place by 2015 with Windows 8.

Microsoft plans to support its flagship Windows 8 client OS on the ARM platform, as well as x86. The ARM platform is reputed to have a better power-saving design for mobile devices than x86 designs. It's possible that Windows 8 on ARM may have a different product release date than Windows 8 on x86 devices. An earlier DigiTimes report predicted that Windows 8 ARM tablets might see the light of day by June 2013, or one year later than its x86 cousins.

Intel broke the hardware manufacturer silence last year about Windows 8 on ARM, suggesting that ARM-based devices would have some limitations compared with x86 machines. Renee James, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Software and Services Group, said that there will be four ARM SoCs for Windows 8 that will only be able to run new applications or cloud-based apps. James claimed that there will be no Windows 8 ARM support for legacy x86 apps. A Microsoft official condemned James' comments at the time as "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading." However, Microsoft has nearly confirmed that apps built to run on x86 systems won't run on Windows 8 ARM devices.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.