Intel provided a glimpse of some reference designs for Android smartphones and tablets built off its Medfield mobile chip, which it believes will finally catapult the company into the mobile market in 2012. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Intel has laid out similar plans over the past several years with nothing to show for it. ARM-based chips dominate the smartphone and tablet market and have forced Intel to scramble. Will 2012 be any different?
Intel insists that it is now ready to compete in mobile with its Medfield chip, which includes a system on a chip design that is designed to boost performance but more importantly, greatly reduce power consumption. That’s been the big knock against Intel’s x86-based chips, which have historically gulped power compared to ARM’s efficient processor designs. Intel says Medfield provides faster browsing and graphics performance and lower power consumption than three of the top phones on the market. It hopes to have partners announcing new devices in the first half of next year with some announcements potentially coming out at CES next month.
Specifically, Intel showed off a phone design that resembles the iPhone but can provide Blu-ray quality video playback, with speedy browsing and apps. The phone, running Android Gingerbread, can also capture bursts of 10 eight-megapixel images at a rate of 15 per second. A tablet reference device running Ice Cream Sandwich is also being shown off.
Can Intel out-innovate multiple companies?
Intel still faces a big uphill battle as it tries to reassert itself in mobile. It’s not facing just one over-matched competitor but a number of robust chip makers, who are all able to tweak the ARM design and create their own innovations on top of it. Intel has a lot of manufacturing resources but it’s still largely reliant on its own innovations to make its chips better. It has to try to match the wizardry of companies like Qualcomm, TI, Nvidia, Samsung and Apple and get device manufacturers to make firm commitments to its chips.
That will depend a lot on whether it can back up its power efficiency claims. Intel has been talking about breakthroughs in power efficiency for a while including last year’s announcement about the Atom Z6xx series. But in order to really compete, Intel needs to show that it can match or exceed the battery sipping ways of ARM chips. Unfortunately for Intel, once everyone began porting their software to ARM it lost its biggest advantage — the fact that some software didn’t run on ARM chips. That will be a big challenge, then, for Intel to get existing Android apps recompiled to run on its x86 chips.
How far can Intel push x86?
And now the competition is all about architecture and the silicon, so a key question is how far Intel can push the x86 architecture. It’s moving to a system-on-a-chip design, which is what other ARM-based chip makers have been already doing, but it still has to show that its technology can make the leaps necessary to compete. Qualcomm has been pushing ahead by incorporating wireless chips into its processor, something Intel will be working on as well with its purchase of Infineon.
Despite coming up empty in the past, it looks like Intel is intent on sticking with its mobile plans. It has plenty of cash and it understands that the PC market is being surpassed by smartphones. It just recently formed a new business unit, the mobile and communications group, that will roll up four existing divisions: mobile communications, netbook and tablet, mobile wireless and ultra mobility. Intel earlier this year announced a partnership with Google to optimize Intel mobile chips on Android mobile devices. And it has to keep up the pressure on mobile because ARM-based chips are poised to enter its PC turf with Windows 8, which will be able to support both ARM and X86 processors.
At this rate, Intel has to come up with the goods to justify any optimism. It can keep plugging away but at some point, it has to show that it’s got a credible alternative to ARM-based processors. 2012 may be a turning point for Intel to show that it can adapt to the post-PC world. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a similar refrain in 2013 and beyond.