Intel debuts ‘Clover Falls’ companion chip for improved laptop AI

On Thursday, Intel debuted “Clover Falls,” an AI companion chip that the company will ship as a platform-level enhancement for commercial PCs, and presumably later for consumer PCs as well.

Intel described Clover Falls, aka the Intel Visual Sensing Controller, as a “secure companion chip that helps make PCs more smart and secure through the power of Intel artificial intelligence.” It will be mounted on the laptop’s motherboard, “bringing new low-power capabilities to the PC and helping it sense and adapt to its surroundings,” according to a blog post published by the company. 

So what exactly will Clover Falls do? As with many things relating to AI, it’s not exactly clear. One example that Intel gave claimed that the Clover Falls module could help the system automatically adjust display brightness after detecting user presence. It’s likely that Clover Falls will be a sort of AI co-processor, tasked with the kind of low-power, semi-passive monitoring that normally the CPU wakes up to do periodically. By offloading some of these functions to a dedicated chip, the main PC processor can remain in a deep sleep, preserving battery life. 

In an email, an Intel spokeswoman described Clover Falls as “a companion chip that works with any camera sensor,” she wrote. “We’ll have more specifics on this around CES.”

Although Intel didn’t specify which PCs or customers the new Clover Falls chip will be aimed at, the company’s announcement included a quote from Meghana Patwardhan, vice president of Dell Latitude and Mobility Products, implying at least the possibility of a partnership. “Working with Intel is so much more than buying a processor that will work with our product,” Patwardhan said. “The co-engineering effort involves Intel’s dedication to tackling unique product challenges together and taking the entirety of the system into consideration—all so we can deliver amazing new platform features to business users.”

Improving Intel’s Evo platform

The subtext here should be familiar for long-time enthusiasts: When Intel has faced strong, direct competition in its processor business, it has leaned more heavily on its holistic, “platform” approach to PCs. Though Intel apparently feels strongly that its 11th-gen Core chip, Tiger Lake, is the fastest laptop processor on the planet right now—and, based on our reviews, it mostly is—rival AMD is expected to launch its next-gen Ryzen 5000 Mobile processor at the CES show in January.

In the real world, Intel’s “platform” has meant technology improvements like Thunderbolt 3, which has effectively remained an Intel-only technology. Beginning with its 10th-gen Ice Lake cores, Intel has also been highlighting its AI capabilities, which are embodied within what Intel calls the Gaussian Neural Accelerator. It’s not clear how Clover Falls will cooperate with the integrated GNA core, or how tasks might be divided.

All of these technological improvements are wrapped up inside what Intel previously called Project Athena, and now calls “Evo”: a brand that consolidates all the co-engineering work Intel and its partners have put into making a “better” laptop. Nearly 40 Evo laptops have launched worldwide, among them the Acer Swift 5, Asus ZenBook Flip S, Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, Lenovo Yoga 9i, and Samsung Galaxy Book Flex 5G, Intel said.

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