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Intel's new smartphone chip key to ARM battle

Agam Shah, IDG News Service | June 7, 2011
Intel's upcoming Medfield chip will be an acid test of the chip maker's ability to enter the smartphone market and battle ARM, analysts said.

ARM however has an advantage as most of today's smartphone software is written for ARM-based operating systems, Freedman said.

The emergence of ARM, a small company that licenses processor designs to chip makers, is one of the factors that has driven Intel to change the way it designs and manufactures its chips to make them smaller and more power-efficient.

Intel typically rolls out a new manufacturing technology, also known as a process node, every two years or so. Newer processes allow them to put more transistors on a chip by making them smaller and packing them closer together, with the process nodes being described by the average size of the smallest features on the chip.

Now Intel wants to accelerate that rhythm: Medfield will be made using a 32-nanometer process, and Intel will start making chips using a 22-nm process later this year. The 14-nm and 11-nm processes that follow will each be introduced after gaps of less than two years, company officials said.

That, Intel said, will allow it to release chips with a power consumption equal to those of ARM in 2013.

Despite the progress in manufacturing technology, industry executives have said that Intel chips may fail to catch on in smartphones.

Last week, Texas Instruments CEO Rich Templeton took a shot at Intel, saying that because of its long history of making power-hungry PC chips, the company may struggle to make chips consuming less than 1 watt that can perform in real-world conditions. TI makes chips for smartphones and tablets with ARM processors.

Intel has also introduced 3D transistors for use in its next-generation of 22-nm chips, with the transistors being 37% faster and consuming less than half the power of 2D transistors on its current 32-nm chips. Production of chips using the 22-nm process will begin later this year.

The impact may not be immediate, but Intel could wrest some market share from ARM over time with better manufacturing technology, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"As the accelerated process node schedule for Atom kicks in, Intel's story gets better, and I predict a greater number of wins and impact on ARM's hegemony in phones," Kay said.

Intel is also realizing the significance of the fast-growing markets for smartphones and tablets, which are becoming more important with PC shipments slowing down. On Monday, market research firm IDC cut its 2011 worldwide PC shipment growth forecast to 4.2% from 7.1% due to sluggish economies and a growing interest in tablets.


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