HoloLens in Danger: Intel Cancels Atom CPU

The Microsoft HoloLens brings a truly innovative, augmented reality, wearable device. The currently released HoloLens hardware is the Developer Edition running on an Intel Atom CPU. Microsoft has yet to announce when a more broadly available consumer version of the HoloLens will be available. However, the recent announcement that Intel is cancelling the Atom CPU line raises some serious questions around the future of Microsoft HoloLens. Is the future of Microsoft HoloLens in danger? Will future HoloLens devices use ARM CPU’s?

HoloLens Hardware Specs

Since the first demos of Microsoft HoloLens in 2015 it’s been known that the CPU powering the augmented reality experience is an Intel Atom based CPU. In addition to the CPU, the HoloLens uses an all new Microsoft HPU (Holographic Processing Unit) to offer dedicated hardware for processing and managing the holographic experience. Beyond these details, there wasn’t much further known about the Microsoft HoloLens hardware until the Development Edition started shipping recently.

With the help of some investigation work we now know what hardware specifications are powering the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition. Here’s a summary:

Operating System Windows 10 (32-bit)
CPU Intel Atom x5-Z8100P @ 1.04Ghz
CPU Manufacturing Process 14 nm
Total RAM 2 GB
Storage 64 GB (54.09 GB available)
Battery 16,500 mWh

The above hardware specs for the Microsoft HoloLens are fairly similar to a lot of smartphones. This really does make sense since the HoloLens hardware is worn on your head as a set of giant glasses, so it needs to be mobile enough to remain friendly and comfortable enough to use.

Comparing these specs to desktop computers or laptops of recent past, puts it in a similar realm to the old AMD Athlon x2 or Intel Core 2 Duo CPU’s when many computers ran Windows XP or Windows 7 with 2 GB of RAM. It’s a curious thought experiment to think about how this hardware might compare, but the graphics power of the Microsoft HoloLens is far superior to those old computers of old. After all, the graphics power would need to be in order to process holograms and pinning virtual objects in physical space while maintaining the necessary 30 FPS frame rate to keep the user from getting nauseous or just plain frustrated. Talking about graphics, remember Windows XP having issues redrawing the screen by leaving video artifacts when dragging windows around?

Well, now let’s get back to the future and think about why Microsoft decided to use Intel hardware for the Microsoft HoloLens CPU?

Why Intel?

When ARM CPU’s rule the mobile world from smartphone to tablets, why would Microsoft choose to go with Intel? Well, the truth is, Microsoft has had a really long history of partnering with Intel. Also, to Intel’s credit, they have made some really interesting advancements into improving battery life and lower power consumption with Intel CPUs, especially the Atom line, in recent years. There was a point in time, where Intel tried to sell smartphone makers to use Intel Atom CPUs instead of ARM CPUs.

Since Microsoft and Intel have a really long, very strong history of partnership, it really makes it easy for them to partner on the Microsoft HoloLens hardware. Plus, it appears that the HoloLens uses a SKU of the Intel Atom CPU that isn’t available for other uses. This could mean that Microsoft has worked with them to customize the Atom CPU for their needs. Additionally, it’s very possible that Microsoft and Intel have partnered to develop the HPU (Holographic Processing Unit) processor as well which could involve a contract that makes these 2 processors a packaged deal of sorts for Intel to make them both for all of Microsoft’s HoloLens needs.

Intel Canceling Atom CPUs

Wait… I thought Microsoft just started using Intel Atom CPUs in the newly released Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition. What do you mean Intel has announced it’s cancelling the Atom CPU line? What exactly might this mean for the future of the HoloLens? Does this put the future of a Microsoft HoloLens Consumer Edition in danger of getting canceled as well?

These are some really interesting questions. However, with the deep partner history that Microsoft and Intel have with each other it’s very likely possible that Microsoft has known about this news for a few months longer than the rest of us.

The cancellation of Intel Atom CPUs is a move for Intel to reposition themselves better in the CPU market. Specifically, it’s a move the shift Intel away from the mobile space that’s been very heavily dominated by ARM CPUs really ever since the release of the iPhone back in 2007.

This move of Intel away from the mobile CPU space marks a big transition of focusing more heavily on the Internet of Things (IoT) area where the technology is still innovating heavily and doesn’t really have a clear CPU market leader. This really doesn’t mean much for Microsoft HoloLens since the HoloLens itself is basically a mobile device.

If Intel is abandoning the mobile CPU space, and Microsoft HoloLens is a mobile device, then an initial impression of this news makes the future of the Microsoft HoloLens look pretty bleak.

Future of HoloLens

The Microsoft HoloLens is a really exciting innovation in computers and how it can be integrated into daily life. It’s proving to bring a more natural computing experience as an innovative wearable device. This is the beginning of what will likely be a huge shift in computing; more specifically mobile computing.

Microsoft has already invested a lot into the technology behind the HoloLens, and they aren’t going to just stop because Intel is getting out of the mobile CPU space. There are a couple possible directions Microsoft could take with the HoloLens hardware, so there is definitely plenty of room to keep moving forward with the Microsoft Holographics technology and the HoloLens.

The first path that comes to mind is that Microsoft could just redesign the hardware of the HoloLens to use an ARM CPU instead. Almost all smartphones use ARM CPUs and there’s a huge hardware and engineer ecosystem around that platform. Microsoft has even had some experience themselves with ARM CPUs over the last few years with the Surface RT tablet, as well as more importantly Windows Phone. This is a very plausible direction to take, especially since historically ARM CPUs have had superior battery life over Intel Atom CPUs.

The second and more likely path for Microsoft to take will be to strike a deal with Intel to keep producing Atom CPUs specifically for using with the Microsoft HoloLens. At first glance this would appear to be an expensive route to take, but it’s really not unheard of in the industry. If you look at the history of game consoles there’s plenty of precedence for CPU makers to develop and/or produce special chips for specific customers. If you combine this with the fact that the HPU (Holographic Processing Unit) is a new type of processor chip that’s custom developed just for the HoloLens, then you’ll see that this second option doesn’t seem too far out of possibility.

Summary

With Intel announcing it’s going to be discontinuing production of the Atom series of CPUs combined with the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition being dependent on the Intel Atom CPU makes for some major questions being raised. While the majority of the industry raises these “future of Intel mobile” questions around smartphones and tablets, this news has some very real and hard implications for the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition, as well as the future Consumer Edition we are all eagerly awaiting.

The potential of the Microsoft Holographics technology within the Microsoft HoloLens is tremendous, and provides for the foundation of what really could become the standard in the “human + computer” integration. Microsoft hasn’t announced when a HoloLens Consumer Edition might be released, but it’s clear that it will be coming eventually.

Whether Microsoft decides to switch to using ARM, or strikes a deal with Intel, it’s fairly certain the Microsoft HoloLens has a very strong future. It’s also clear that application support for the HoloLens will handle a CPU architecture change fairly easily with the application development for HoloLens being centered around the Windows Store and the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) application model.

The future of Microsoft HoloLens is bright. However, only time will tell if Intel will be involved in that future, or not.

3 thoughts on “HoloLens in Danger: Intel Cancels Atom CPU

  1. Intel has cancelled Atoms because their mainstream mobile CPUs became competitive technically.
    Skylake CPU family has several Core M models with 4.5 watts TDP, very similar to Atom’s 4W.
    Core M’s are much faster, esp. the GPU.

    So, the third and more likely path for Microsoft — put something like Core m5-6Y54 into their next HoloLens.

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    • Some technical corrections:
      1. Atom Z8100 is an underclocked Z series at 1.04Ghz. The normal TDP for 1.4Ghz Z8500 is 2W, so underclocked Z8100 is likely 1.5W or less. not 4.5W of the Core M.
      2. CoreM is $200 or more, Atom X5-Z8500 is $27, the X7-Z8750 with 16CU is $37.
      3. The only reason why Intel canceled Atom is margin pressure. I can’t see any other reason why Intel is doing this.
      4. I think anything more than 2W could run into heating issues, so I don’t know how Intel can squeeze 4.5W TDP on a small HMD.
      5. Cancelling 2W TDP Atoms is probably the biggest mistake Intel’s made in the past 10 years or so. It is almost as bad as Paul Otellini’s famous 2006 decision to not do the iphone 2G’s CPU, leaving ARM to dominate the mobile world. So now Surface Phone x86 is also dead. It is almost sad.

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      • That’s no “technical corrections”, those were arguments. I’m OK with that.

        1. With that latest generations, the TDP is very flexible. Intel now calls it Configurable TDP (cTDP), and the lowest value for that m5 is just 3.5W.
        2. For a $3000 device, that $200 difference isn’t much.
        3. The only reason why Intel launched those Atoms, and sold them for $10-20, they hoped to capture the mobile market. They failed — apparently, ARMs are good enough for the job.
        4. My phone is way smaller than HoloLens, and yet its CPU (Qualcomm MSM8974) peaks at 3-4 watts. HoloLens is much larger geometrically, besides they can rely on owner’s blood circulation for cooling 🙂
        5. Why do you want surface phone x86? Why do you care about your phone’s CPU instruction set at all?

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