This week’s CES brought a virtual blitzkrieg of news, making its easy to overlook an important story. One that nearly passed under my radar was Intel’s announcement that it finally had some big-name companies to make smartphones running Atom processors.
I heard that Intel was unveiling a reference design for a handset running one of its chips, but I brushed it off — Intel has done this multiple times before and nothing has ever come of it. The definition of “Reference Design” is generally “something that is never going to see the light of day”. I was sure there were many more important developments to cover.
Fortunately, Brighthand‘s newest contributor, Andy Patrizio, set me straight. Intel’s announcements went beyond a mere reference design, to the fact that it has lined up Motorola and Lenovo to make smartphones running Intel chips. For the first time, a handset built by a major company with an Atom processor is going to be on shore shelves.
The bad news is that Lenovo is a Chinese company, and it’s currently thinking locally. The K800 will be introduced by China Unicom at some point in the spring. A broader release later is a possibility, though.
Motorola isn’t talking specifics, other than to say that it and Intel have entered into a multi-year contract to work together on more than one device.
What I find most interesting about this is that Google is in the process of acquiring Motorola. So if the company commits to using Intel x86 processors on future smartphones, it means Google must also be serious about Android running on the x86 architecture.
While Google has committed itself to bringing its mobile operating system to Intel chips last fall, at the time I questioned at the time how serious it was. Google experiments with a lot of projects, and many go nowhere (anyone remember Google Wave?). With its soon-to-be subsidiary Motorola committed to the project, however, I have to believe Google is going to be firmly committed to it.
ARM vs. Intel
Currently, every smartphone (and tablet) used a chip designed by ARM Holdings. I know what you’re thinking “No, Qualcomm made my Droid’s chip” or “My iPhone has an Apple A5 processor.” See, ARM doesn’t manufacture chips, it designs them and then licenses these to a range of other companies, who then make actual hardware.
Why do they do this? Because ARM is very, very, good at designing low-power processors that are well suited for mobile devices. Better than any other company. Up until now, even better than Intel, who dominates production of processors in desktops and laptops.
Despite Intel’s best efforts, its Atom line has been too big a drain for very portable computers. A few years ago, I had one of the original Ultra Mobile PCs that ran Windows on an Intel processor — it had a battery life that could be measured in minutes. I’m sure you’d hate a phone that could barely last an hour.
Which is why handset makers have turned to ARM and its licensees Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Samsung, etc. to get the brains for their devices. But it sounds like Intel is finally turning things around. Its Menlow 32nm system-on-a-chip (SoC) appears to finally be giving ARM some real competition.
With Google apparently backing this development, the days of the ARM monopoly may be coming to an end.
Related Articles on Brighthand:
- Intel’s Smartphone Designers Step Up, Finally Score a Hit
- Android OS To Be Optimized for Intel Atom Processors