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  (Source: Marvel and DC Comics)
Meanwhile Intel strikes back with smartphone chips

The war between Intel Corp. (INTC) and the alliance of chipmakers using ARM Holdings, Plc.'s (LON:ARM) titular core designs is heating up.  Intel is the world's largest personal computer CPU maker, while ARM Holdings is the largest core licenser on the general CPU market, which includes everything from the chip in your dishwasher to automotive CPUs.  The stage is set for the pair to duke it out at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

I. Intel Bets on Its Process Technology

At CES the hot topic for Intel will be Medfield.  Medfield is Intel's crack at an ultra-mobile x86 system-on-a-chip, a type of design that incorporates a CPU, GPU, RAM, and I/O controllers all into a single die.  Intel's hope is to eventually cut the platform's power consumption low enough to put it on smartphones [source; PDF].  

Intel CEO Paul Otellini is expected to unveil smartphone designs in his keynote on Jan. 10.  The pressing question is whether this technology is production ready, or still in the prototype phase.

Even if it doesn't achieve the goal of production smartphone chips in 2012, it has a good shot at achieving it in 2013 when its 22 nm 3D FinFET transistor technology is brought onboard Medfield's successor.

Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for research firm In-Stat, in an interview with Bloomberg emphasizes how critical this push is for Intel, stating, "For Intel, it's a 'we have to be there.'  Never bet against a computing device that fits in your pocket. I do more on my smartphone than any other device."

Intel's x86 is a complex instruction set computer (CISC) architecture.  Intel has struggled to match ARM -- a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture -- in power efficiency.  

Intel's first foray into the mobile space -- tablets based on its Moorestown (Android-aimed) and Oak Trail (Windows-aimed) -- was largely a flop with very low sales over 2011.

But Intel looks to be much more competitive soon.  Two things have become increasingly clear in this more competitive market.  The first is that despite all Intel's work ARM is likely to maintain a slight power edge due to advantages of its architecture.  The second thing is that Intel is on the verge of gaining a substantial an edge of its own, through its dedication to developing the best process (chip manufacturing) technologies on the market (e.g. 3D FinFET).

In the world of computer chips smaller transistors means less power, so it's a big deal that Intel is about to unleash 22 nm, even as its competitors reportedly are struggling with the transition to 28-32 nm.  When you add in the proprietary power-sipping "fin" gate design, in theory Intel could compensate for its architectural disadvantages and beat ARM at its own game.

II. For ARM it's All About Sticking to its Guns -- Architecture

For ARM chipmakers like NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) and Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM), there isn't the luxury of coasting on a process lead.  For them it's all about the architecture.  While much of the architecture's baseline performance is dependent on the designs produced by ARM, a fair amount of the performance also falls on the partner's ability to tweak and maximize its finished die.

The ARM alliance isn't exactly resting on their laurels.  According to a report by Bloomberg, Qualcomm earlier on Jan. 10 will show off its counterstrike against Intel -- high-end ARM CPUs aimed at laptops.  

Qualcomm toyed with this idea in the netbook realm as early as two years ago.  But it lacked the powerful CPUs that people expected of full-sized laptops.  Now that it's got those CPUs, it's waiting on the second key part of that equation -- support from most peoples' OS of choice -- Windows.  

Windows with ARM
Windows 8 is finally supporting ARM chips, as shown here in this CES 2011 shot -- Qualcomm is expected to unveil some powerful notebook at CES 2012. [(c) DailyTech/Jason Mick]

That support has arrived with Windows 8, currently in its beta phase.  Finally breaking its "Wintel" tradition -- of targeting Windows primarily at Intel chips, Microsoft is throwing its weight behind ARM as well.

Windows 8 offers full support for ARM CPUs, although legacy software products will have to be recompiled to work on the new architecture.  Given Windows' shift to app market software distribution model, though, legacy software may be less of an issue than some have previously speculated.

Even analysts who are mildly optimistic about Intel's mobile prospects are concerned about this fresh blood in the laptop space.  Daniel Amir, an analyst at San Francisco, Calif.-based Lazard Capital Markets estimates that Intel will reach around 13 percent share in the smartphone market by 2015, of an estimated total market of 1.1 billion devices that year (2011's market was 300 million devices).  

But he also estimates than ARM's purpose-driven designs will steal a third of the mobile computer (laptop/netbook) market by 2015, up from 8 percent in 2011.  That market is expected to also see growth, expanding from 275 million units in 2011 to 340 million units in 2015.

The key problem for Intel, though, says Mr. Amir is that laptop chips fetch a higher price -- around $107 USD on average -- where as smartphone chips are typically priced around $20 USD.  In that sense Intel has more to lose in the laptop market where it currently has an 80 percent market share.  Mr. Amir states, "[Intel] needs to be sure that [they're] not losing the notebook."

He predicts $2.2B USD in lost sales for Intel by 2015.

Qualcomm and others still have a lot to prove, however.  Much like Intel must prove that it can scale its powerful chips to smaller, lower-power smartphone designs, Qualcomm must prove that it can scale its smaller, lower-power chips to higher power laptop designs.  

The first major test for Qualcomm will come with its Windows 8 laptop and tablet developer platforms, which it plans to release shortly.  In a bit of a sign of favoritism to its traditional x86 partner, Windows 8's reference tablet and notebook designs are still sporting Intel chips.  But Qualcomm isn't concerned about this, saying that it's ready to put its own reference designs in competitors’ hands.

III. Servers -- the Third Tier

With ARM invading the laptop space and x86 invading the smartphone/tablet space, it's easy to forget that there's four pillars of the modern computing chip market:

i. Embedded
ii. Mobile Devices
iii. Servers
iv. Personal Computers

While Intel hasn't shown much interest in squeezing x86 into the low-volume embedded market, the third tier -- servers -- is a crucial bread and butter sector of Intel's business.  Intel can sell server chips to businesses at much higher prices than its consumer chips command.

But ARM is preparing to invade this market as well.  Hewlett Packard Comp. (HPQ) is working on the world's first mass market server chip designs.  We may not see these designs at CES, or at least not on prominent display.  But keep this final frontier of the conflict in the back of your mind.

Calxeda dense server
[Image Source: Calxeda/ARM Holdings/HP]

If ARM penetrates the server market -- another power consumption sensitive application -- Intel may be impacted far more severely than if ARM penetrates the slightly lower margin laptop/netbook market.

Source: Bloomberg

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Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Mitch101 on 1/3/2012 11:24:52 AM , Rating: 5
There is nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM chips other than damaging their EGO and Intel is a monster powerhouse when it comes to fabrication. Intel could create a hybrid monster of a chip kind of like NVIDIA is kind of doing with their GPU knowledge still dont rule out Intel's fabrication abilities being one step ahead of everyone. Imagine Intel making ARM chips on a tri-gate manufacturing process and die shrink some 12 months before anyone else is able to get there.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Reclaimer77 on 1/3/2012 11:50:49 AM , Rating: 4
I don't want Intel to make ARM chips. I want x86 to thrive as a mobile CPU so I can run my Windows programs on tablets etc.

Imagine a time where we can play a popular MMO on a tablet as easily and natively as our PC's? We need x86 mobile for that.

For universal device/software comparability, x86 needs to do what it did in the mobile market as it did for PC's. And I believe with tri-gate and the newer processes, this is all but a given.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By serkol on 1/3/2012 12:02:42 PM , Rating: 2
If your smartphone, Win Pad, desktop, laptop are all Windows and are all ARM, you will be able to run the same apps on them. I use Macs, and I don't mind if everything I own is Mac OS and ARM, one day :-)

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By defter on 1/3/2012 12:05:54 PM , Rating: 2
No it doesn't work like that.

It's easier to run X86/Windows software on X86/Linux than on ARM/Windows.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By gamerk2 on 1/3/12, Rating: 0
RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Reclaimer77 on 1/3/2012 1:24:52 PM , Rating: 1
Not if its recompiled, which if you avoid lacing too many X86 instructions in your code, isn't that hard to do.

I'm talking to taking a program or file or whatever from my Windows PC, and putting it on my Windows x86 tablet. And it running natively. You're talking about recompiling??

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Fritzr on 1/3/2012 10:06:24 PM , Rating: 2
He's talking about next year's releases. As an End-User you really shouldn't care about the instruction set the program requires with the exception that it be supported by your hardware.

This could be a transition from x86/AMD64 to ARM64.

In the beginning programs will be optimized for one or the other with ports being recompiled for the other.

Currently we have x86/AMD64 on laptops and above in terms of personal computers and servers.

ARM32/ARM64 for tablets, smartphones and low power embedded.

For Server and general use embedded there is an odd mix of the market leaders and many lesser known instruction sets.

The ARM chips are starting to invade the consumer computer market with netbooks. Essentially ARM powered notebook computers. As ARM gains computing power they will move into full powered notebooks and then desktop computers.

Having Win8 run natively on ARM will help with this transition. The lack of an x86 emulator will slow it down in the beginning, but after a couple of years there will be 'legacy' ARM programs & a growing number of ARM ports & clones of the popular x86 software. At that point the industry can phase out x86 and let ARM take over the load.

Apple used this transition model as the Mac went from Motorola 68k to PPC to x86.

To a lesser extent Windows has done this also. Early versions of Windows were 100% MSDOS compatible. Later various items became unsupported and users simply moved to products that offered similar function or assembled a legacy OS computer to run the programs that no longer work on a 'modern' system.

By Reclaimer77 on 1/4/2012 9:57:19 AM , Rating: 3
Sorry but I can't take anyone seriously who suggest Windows 8 is the start of X86 being "phased out". x86 isn't going anywhere, for better or worst.

Also as much as I would like to see it succeed, I have this nagging feeling that Windows 8 tablets will flop. Because...

Having Win8 run natively on ARM will help with this transition. The lack of an x86 emulator will slow it down in the beginning, but after a couple of years there will be 'legacy' ARM programs & a growing number of ARM ports & clones of the popular x86 software.

Windows 8 doesn't HAVE a couple of years. The competition in this space is brutal. Who knows what Apple or Google will come out with later on.

How about this; Let's see if Microsoft can actually GET some market share in the smartphone/tablet consumer space before we talk about them being the engineer of x86's downfall?

In fact Windows 8 not able to natively or emulate x86 software was a huge misstep imo. A tablet fully compatible with my PC and it's programs would have been AMAZING. But if that's not the case, why trade in your Android/iOS tablet for one? What do you get? Yay I'm sure we all can't wait to go to ANOTHER closed source "app store" and spend even more money on a platform that's incompatible with everything else. Awesome...

It's really a shame. Millions of people held their breath with the announcement of a "Windows tablet" in hope that it could be a TRUE Windows experience, only to have that hope dashed.

Apple used this transition model as the Mac went from Motorola 68k to PPC to x86.

Apple's with those CPU's had a pathetic market share. x86 is all pervasive and has saturated the planet. Not a very good example imo.

In closing and simply put, x86 isn't going anywhere until Intel says so because they've come out with something new and better. That's probably the facts of the matter.

By vol7ron on 1/4/2012 3:15:06 PM , Rating: 2
Like a virus?

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By nafhan on 1/3/2012 1:04:42 PM , Rating: 3
I use Macs, and I don't mind if everything I own is Mac OS and ARM, one day
You'd have to re-purchase all your software or run it through a horribly slow translation layer. At least that's the historical precedent for CPU arch. changes...

By B3an on 1/4/2012 7:04:24 AM , Rating: 2
That doesn't matter. As long as it has an Apple logo people like him will buy it regardless of how poor it is.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Jeffk464 on 1/3/2012 6:01:28 PM , Rating: 2
I still think the market for arm computing is cloud based. Google and Arm should be working together to make a google chrome based netbook. Only I would like to see a slicker netbook architecture like what you see in ultrabooks(thin and no moving parts).

By Reclaimer77 on 1/3/2012 7:42:51 PM , Rating: 2
The average person doesn't know the difference between ARM and x86. But a Chrome notebook that's incompatible with everything they know? I think they'll take notice of that. I see that product as a non-starter.

By fteoath64 on 1/4/2012 1:12:20 AM , Rating: 2
ChromeBook was dead the moment Google issued the Galaxy Tab 10.1 to their developers. It does much much more than a ChromeBook ever intends and priced similarly, if not cheaper for other brands like Iconia 7.

With Asus Transformer, it completely eclipses a chromeBook with native Android OS and good browser to boot. So ChromeBooks has had its day and is passed now. Yes, I am saying Android OS on a tablet does almost all of what a notebook can do. That is enough for most people.

By Menoetios on 1/3/2012 6:23:45 PM , Rating: 1
Imagine a time when the most popular applications and games are designed for the ARM architecture, and we have 5-6 CPU manufacturers (Qualcomm, Samsung, TI, Nvidia, possibly Intel and AMD too) competing against each other for our business instead of one and one-third the way it is with x86.

By sprockkets on 1/3/2012 7:02:14 PM , Rating: 3
I don't want Intel to make ARM chips. I want x86 to thrive as a mobile CPU so I can run my Windows programs on tablets etc.

Well apple had other plans and in the process wrecked everyone elses. Get used to ironies like apple being a "gaming platform."

Before you know it the only printers that will exists will say iOS ready on them. At that point I'll stop buying computers.

By fteoath64 on 1/4/2012 12:58:52 AM , Rating: 2
Intel has been promising mobile (phones and tablets) x86 for almost 5 years and not a single product shipping in any volume to date. They have failed. Do they expect us to wait another 5 years before they can do that ?.

Meanwhile the ARM A9 has matured in smartphones and tablets to be the standard volume product and evolving to A15 which will dominate the next generation. X86 still is in promise state and will remain behind in overall performance and especially poor in battery life compared to ARM. This is one time in the industry where you see a winning architecture soar while a constrained architecture remaining in prototype no matter what was thrown at it. Yeah, many wants to see X86 mobile give ARM a good competitive kick,but alas,that will not be the case here.
I will say this again, Intel get an Arm license and join the race with innovation that is not X86 in this space.

By MarioJP on 1/5/2012 12:10:03 AM , Rating: 2
Me too. Not because its x86/x64 its because real programs are riding on it. Not these fart/angry/applets/pinch and crop/auto synthesizer where you tap tap and it makes beats for you. Don't get me wrong music apps are cool but the concept is not new. I still think you need a PC to serve these tablets and smartphones a place to keep your data more securely. Your ipad could break your phone can be blocked,etc. In any case competition is good though so just bring it!.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By vol7ron on 1/3/2012 12:40:45 PM , Rating: 2
Well, they would have to license it and being Intel, I bet they would be charged more than competitors.

Also, Intel already has went RISC before with controller chips (i960) and the StrongARM CPU and I think the Itanium is RISC-based.

That said, if Intel wanted to go RISC, I'm not so sure they'd go ARM, they might fall back on their own patents, or re-develop.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Shig on 1/3/2012 1:05:57 PM , Rating: 2
From what I've read about the industry roadmaps in fabrication, Intel moving to 22nm 3-D transistors was multiple years ahead of anyone else. Similar roadmaps can keep up with the lithography dimensions, but they're 2-3 years behind on FinFet, and that's optimistic. FinFet by itself is nearly worth an entire node shrink in performance, even more so when you're dealing with lower voltage performance.

If Intel pulls off good yields with Ivy Bridge, things will not look good for other fabs and the companies that rely on them.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By french toast on 1/3/2012 1:59:46 PM , Rating: 2
Fair point, however early ivy bridge indications point to the lower end chips having very simular tdps as the sandy bridge parts with only minimal performance improvement.

Of course this new node tech will help it alot, but x86 akready starts at a massive disadvantage due to legacy bloat, so it may take 22nm finFET just to stay competitve in 2011..let alone 2013 when it MAY release..
By that time arm will be moving to 22nm themselfs..
I just see it working out some how

By vol7ron on 1/4/2012 3:13:49 PM , Rating: 2
I'm confident that Intel will make the right decision when competition closes in. I admit, I'm not an expert in this, but from my understanding a lot of x86 bloat is due to deals Intel has made with companies that still run that old software.

My question is, can you take some of those instructions away and still have today's programs (Office/games) that don't rely on those instructions, to operate unaffected. If so, they might be x86-based, so that most of the x86 compiled programs today are still functional, but still be reduced to improve efficiency.

Either way, Intel has shown a history of relying on its production means until competition ramped up and caused them to switch. Take, for instance, the Pentium CPU. They kept increasing Hz, not efficiency. Competition came in, and no longer was it about clock speed, but the biggest improvement was doing what AMD had done (Intel's card up its sleeve): moving the memory controller off the board and on die.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By geddarkstorm on 1/3/2012 2:45:24 PM , Rating: 1
The fact ARM is resoundly beating Intel in the mobile space, and now posed to invade into laptops (and servers), all while having a massive disadvantage process and manufacturing wise, says a lot about the ARM architecture (or conversely says a lot negatively about x86).

Just imagine paring ARM's architecture prowess with Intel's manufacturing, and we could have CPUs that are jawdropping.

By encia on 1/4/2012 8:48:28 AM , Rating: 2
CPU alone doesn't complete a laptop i.e. the GPU factor.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By bruce24 on 1/3/2012 2:23:14 PM , Rating: 2
Well, they would have to license it

They are ready have a license. While they sold most of their Xscale line to Marvell back in 2006 they kept Network and Media processors based on Xscale, which they have since moved to x86, but still have the license to design/manufacture ARM processors.

By Shig on 1/3/2012 5:21:36 PM , Rating: 2
This is a little off-topic, but I want to commend ARM on their recent initiative of 'Big-Little' processing. They are making great strides in power gating technology and pairing 'big-iron' processing with super efficient processing.

In Intel terms this would be like a Sandybridge processor coming together with an Atom processor with graphics on the same die. Whenever you needed a lot of power, sandybridge turns on, whenever you don't, atom turns on, and the other turns off, and vise versa.

This is apparent in the Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core. This processor is actually a 5 core CPU that has 4 'big' cores and one 'little' core, with nearly full power gating. The goal is to use exactly as much cpu power that you need at any one point totally maximizing performance and battery life.

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By Jeffk464 on 1/3/2012 6:13:27 PM , Rating: 2
With intel's talent and R&D budget it would be interesting to see what they could come with if they dropped all legacy and came up with something entirely new.

By Calin on 1/4/2012 4:35:02 AM , Rating: 2

RE: Nothing to prevent Intel from making ARM
By encia on 1/4/2012 8:36:38 AM , Rating: 2
By marsovac on 1/9/2012 7:56:33 PM , Rating: 2
I added something to the graph that puts ARM in a much better position. Something that Intel omitted on purpose.

By Hector2 on 1/6/2012 10:33:45 AM , Rating: 2
Been there, done that. Intel bought the StrongARM IP in 1997 from DEC when they were going out of business. They developed it into the XScale architecture but sold it all to Marvell in 2006.

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