Intel's Atom chip: Can it take on ARM?

Or will Intel's chip manage to co-exist with the widely used ARM?

Intel will make a big splash at the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 6 with its Atom chips featured inside a variety of tablet computers and netbooks, but the chips are not expected to appear in smartphones until the last half of 2011.

So far, the smartphone world has been heavily dominated by chips running the ARM architecture, meaning Intel's Atom is likely to face an uphill battle. ARM chips from Qualcomm are in 77% of all Android smartphones, leading some to dub the ARM-Android platform "Quadroid."

ARM chips also are used in most other smartphones and tablets, including Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

"Intel has a significant handicap when it comes to mobile and is trying to overcome it," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates. Early Atom chips grew out of Intel's focus on the x86 architecture for the Pentium and other chips for laptops, but those chips weren't power-efficient enough for small mobile devices, he said.

"Intel has to show the smartphone vendors that they have a significant advantage over ARM, whether that is greater power efficiency or the ability to run graphics or small enough chip size," Gold added. He predicted it is going be a "battle between ARM and Atom."

Intel, which championed laptop computing in the early 1990s and makes chips for 80% of the world's PCs, downplays the notion of a forthcoming smartphone chip battle.

"We have been incredibly successful in mobile since Day One, and our early Centrino processor drove Wi-Fi" in laptops, Intel CIO Diane Bryant said in a recent interview.

Intel recognizes the value of a smaller Atom processor with lower power requirements, Bryant said. "We have tremendous processor technology, going from 32 nanometers down to 22 nanometers, and more and more transistors at lower and lower power," Bryant added.

Some say Intel has been slow to understand the move to sub-laptop form factors, including tablets and smartphones, but Bryant said Intel understands the trend fully and has supported thousands of Intel employees who wanted to use personal smartphones running different operating systems at work.

"I do think the world is going to mobile ... and the mobility factor is playing a greater and greater role," Bryant said. "Access to enterprise data from whatever device is a huge challenge [for IT shops], but people are mobile and work life and professional life is blurred."

Intel CEO Paul Otellini, speaking at an investor conference in early December, said smartphones running Atom should be available in the second half of 2011. He said there is a lot of work involved in developing telephony, software and services for smartphones. Intel has also told reporters that it will show off Atom chips running inside tablets from various manufacturers at CES in January.

Intel spokeswoman Claudine Mangano said a third generation of Atom, called Medfield, is scheduled for 2011. Compared with earlier Atom chips, Medfield products will be smaller and more energy-efficient and will deliver higher performance. She gave no other details on when Medfield chips might ship, nor did she say whether they will be used in smartphones, although that seems to be the intention.

Mangano also said that Intel doesn't really face a battle against ARM, indicating that as the smartphone and tablet markets grow, Intel's Atom can succeed alongside ARM.

"We believe we have a compelling alternative offering for the industry," she said. "We believe there's room for many to be successful. We'll just have to see how things play out."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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