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Could the next gen Atom processor break ARM's stranglehold on mobile devices?

Written by Rich Fiscus (Google+) @ 22 Dec 2011 12:20

Could the next gen Atom processor break ARM's stranglehold on mobile devices? Co-founded by Robert Noyce, one of two men credited with inventing the integrated circuit, and Gordon Moore of Moore's Law fame, Intel developed much of the technology at the heart of modern computers.
But in recent years the increasing importance of mobile devices, and the accompanying focus on low power consumption rather than raw horsepower, has put their future as an industry leader in question. While their low power Atom processors proved popular for netbooks, due primarily to compatibility with existing x86 code, the competing ARM architecture has become the unquestioned king of the smartphone and tablet market.

Recently Intel has focused significant attention on becoming relevant in the mobile world, and they hope the next generation of Atom processors, codenamed Medfield, will do just that. Set to be released next year, Medfield promises significant power efficiency improvements over previous Atom generations by eliminating the requirement for an external support chip.

MIT's Technology Review got their hands on a pair of prototype Android devices, a smartphone and a tablet, powered by the new Atom processors. In a review of the devices, which perform similarly to current generation ARM hardware, they mention that Intel has optimized them specifically for Android.

Ironically, Intel was recently criticized for a lack of such optimization in a research note by an industry analyst from Piper Jaffray. This development could be significant for the future of Android.

Arguably, one of the key advantages Apple has is their customization of the ARM processor used in the iPhone, iPad, and other devices. This allows them to optimize the hardware, not just generically for mobile devices, but specifically for iOS. ARM is doing the same for Android in their upcoming Cortex A7 design.

According to Technology Review, Medfield chips also incorporate image processing technology from a Dutch company called Silicon Hive which Intel acquired earlier this year. It is used to enhance the capabilities of the phone's camera. This is similar to their approach for desktop processors, where they have recently integrated video encoding.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new Atom processors, and arguably the one area where Intel has an advantage over ARM manufacturers, is their edge in manufacturing technology. The prototype chip was built using a 32 nanometer process, which they plan to upgrade soon to 22 nanometers.

The process size refers to the size of the transistors making up the processor. Smaller transistors mean lower voltages (and less heat) for the same processor speed or higher speeds for the same voltage. It also increases the number of chips you can produce from a single silicon wafer.

By contrast, many current generation ARM processors are manufactured using a 45 nanometer process, while higher end chips like Apple's A5 use 40 nanometers. Apple's upcoming A6 processor, being built in Texas for the iPad 3, is believed to use a 28 nanometer process.

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