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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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RE: Ugh...
By Jeffk464 on 1/3/2012 6:04:21 PM , Rating: 2
Your $50,000 worth of software will be worth $5 in five years anyways. Software gets left behind, thats just how it goes. Supposedly one of the main hurdles in developing windows is trying to maintain legacy support for companies with insanely old custom software.

RE: Ugh...
By ct760ster on 1/3/2012 6:09:40 PM , Rating: 2
Should be possible for the x86 going the way of the Space Shuttle.

RE: Ugh...
By Reclaimer77 on 1/3/2012 7:46:14 PM , Rating: 2
Should be possible for the x86 going the way of the Space Shuttle.

That's not going to happen anytime soon.

RE: Ugh...
By encia on 1/4/2012 8:53:48 AM , Rating: 2
Latest AMD GCN has X86-64 IP.

RE: Ugh...
By Roffles on 1/3/2012 6:51:31 PM , Rating: 1
If by legacy, you must mean Office Professional Plus 2010, Tekla Structures, AutoCAD Mechanical 2011 and Adobe Acrobat X? No, I'm pretty sure it will all be worth $50,000 in five years (probably more due to inflation) and it will also be X86 in five years. And there is nothing "legacy" about X86 software that you pay thousands of dollars yearly in maintenance to ensure that you get updates to new versions and technical support. You're obviously one of the people I was referring to who is stuck in a consumer-reality distortion bubble. Like I said, X86 is tried and true and ARM's generation of disposable non-productive fart-electronics doesn't reflect the wants and needs of the enterprise.

Supposedly, this year Win8 X86 tablets will hit the market. With the touch friendly MetroUI in the front and a fully operational Windows8 operating system in the back that will take all my "legacy" software. We're talking about using the same piece of hardware for the pointless farting around in my spare time and then docking it to a keyboard and mouse and doing something productive with it. How can ARM complete with that? Honestly, I'd like to know how they could?

RE: Ugh...
By someguy123 on 1/3/2012 9:46:46 PM , Rating: 2
The software you listed doesn't come close to $50,000. It'll compete with that in power draw, the same way it does now. ARM doesn't have any solutions and aren't actively chasing high performance systems.

I agree with you that we don't really need or want to drop x86, especially with process shrinks making their hit much less substantial, but it won't make sense to support x86 on mobile unless intel delivers similar performance/watt, which could be possible soon if they smoothly transition to finfet and smaller processes. Win8 will have support for ARM as well as x86.

RE: Ugh...
By Roffles on 1/3/2012 10:48:17 PM , Rating: 1
Haha...what? And you know this because you payed less $40000 for your Tekla Structures seat and $4000/yr maintenance/upgrades? And you payed less than $4000 for your AutoCAD seat and $500/yr for maintenance/upgrades? And the thousands of hours that went into customizing lisp routines? What's that worth? No...on just those two alone over the past 7 years I'm way beyond six figures in total investment. But I've made my money back ten fold so that's why at laugh at ARM, and their hardware that's only good for checking email and playing angry birds in it's current form. I mean, it's gotten so bad that the bloggosphere won't shut up about GTA III...a 10 year old game that dates back to Pentium 3. That really is how far behind they are.

RE: Ugh...
By spread on 1/3/2012 10:56:04 PM , Rating: 2
You can say they're behind when you've seen a desktop chip with enough cores and enough cache. You're comparing a processor that belongs in a calculator to a monstrosity that consumes up to 125W easy. GTAIII barely ran on the Pentium 3 anyways, it barely ran on the Pentium 4 with enough framerate.

Also your software will be worthless in 5 years. Look at software now, does anyone still use AutoCAD from 2006? Nope.

RE: Ugh...
By MarioJP on 1/4/2012 11:53:34 PM , Rating: 2
GTAIII runs fine on Pentium 4. This game is GPU bound not so much of the CPU. Also even though the P4 was a hot cpu It was a darn solid one at that. So stable it was easily overclocked to 3.6Ghz no problems.

The previous poster is right. Too much of the "consumer bubble" is not a good thing.

RE: Ugh...
By MarioJP on 1/4/2012 11:57:07 PM , Rating: 2
Yet I have seen ARM run at those speeds. So in a way x86 is ahead of the game and this was like 10 years ago. What ARM is doing is power saving before performance. Be interesting to see ARM to take on Intel head to head.

RE: Ugh...
By MarioJP on 1/4/2012 11:58:43 PM , Rating: 2

RE: Ugh...
By Fritzr on 1/4/2012 1:10:40 AM , Rating: 2
I originally used AutoCAD on an i386.

AutoDesk maintenance updates and new releases will support whatever the market leader is.

The version of AutoCAD that is $3000 today will be $300 in 5 years
Adobe X will not be available in 5 years ... instead you will be using Adobe XII or XIII by then
Is that MS Office Pro? Regardless of publisher though, what makes you think that they won't support Windows 9 and 10?
Tekla Structures I have not heard of, but I suspect that like AutoDesk they will continue to support whatever high end workstations their users tell them they have.

In short if this were 1990 you'd be saying that Win7 and the I7 were useless because your software would not run on those systems.

You would be quite right to. The 1990 versions of the software were for MSDOS, Windows 3.x and VMS/VAX. No support offered or planned for i7 or Win7.

That changed though when those were released. I suspect there will be more changes when Win8 is discontinued ... or have you been told that you will need to maintain a Win7 legacy system if you want to be using these packages 5 years from now when the current OS and hardware will be obsolete? More likely is that you will be running the updated versions on workstation hardware that is much more powerful than what you have today.

Lisp is a nonissue ... unless AutoDesk changes the language it will run on any OS supported by AutoDesk. It is very likely that 1990 Lisp programs will run on 2011 AutoCAD with minor changes to accommodate changes to AutoCAD. AutoLisp is a scripting language that has no connection to the CPU instruction set.

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