Will Intel's Atom chip make it into smartphones? That's an interesting question.
And it's one the company seemed intent on addressing at its investor conference earlier this week- and in particular, at a session focused on the next generation of Atom chips given by Anand Chandrasekher, head of the company's Ultra Mobility Group.
The next chip is called Moorestown, and it's due out early next year. While this chip is likely to be used mainly in products such as netbooks, Chandrasekher said it would also allow for a broader use in "mobile internet devices." That chip will be followed in 2011 by Medfield, which is the version really aimed at smartphones.
The smartphone market has been asking for a number of features that Intel chips haven't been able to provide, Chandrasekher acknowledged, such as lower total power, lower power when used, all-day battery life, performance, and broadband connectivity. Intel is taking a number of generations to get there.
The existing Atom chip (known as Menlow) takes the power the chip uses when it is active 10 times lower than the power of previous Intel chips, primarily designed for notebooks. The Moorestown version focused instead on bringing down the power the chip uses when it is idle (which is most of the time). He said Moorestown will reduce idle power by 50 times, a lot better than the original prediction of 10X the company made a year and a half ago.
Chandrasekher demonstrated a "form factor device"- essentially, a prototype created with Compal that was a big bigger than an existing iPhone. He said the actual units Intel's partners would be making would likely be smaller.
And then, Chandrasekher demoed a system board hooked up to a power meter that he said showed off the power reduction. While Menlow-based devices use 1 watt of power, he said, Moorestown-based ones could use as little as 20 miliwatts, making it competitive with some of the higher-end smartphones.
Moorestown, he said, was a highly integrated chip with a new architecture, including a combined chipset that handles features such as audio, camera, and security functions. Like Menlow, it is produced on a 45-nm process, and the first systems based on the chip are expected to be available in the first half of 2010.
This will be followed by Medfield, a 32-nm chip that will consolidate more functions onto a single chip (without requiring the separate Langwell chipset that will work with Moorestown), and should provide more performance in an even smaller package.
Chandrasekher and many of the other speakers during the conference talked about how the Intel architecture (what most of us call x86 computing, to include AMD's microprocessors as well) was the key technology in driving the "full Internet" and rich content, through its support of virtually every important media codec and applications such as Real Player and Flash 10.
He said many of the Internet standards- AJAX, CSS, XML- run better on the Intel architecture. In particular, he talked about how all the major new products are designed for this architecture, and singled out how Flash 10 does not currently run on chips based on ARM cores. "By definition, the competition runs yesterday's Internet," he said.
And that seems true as far as it goes. In fact, one can argue that just about every popular Internet site is optimized not only for the x86 but for Windows and Macintosh as well; or at least Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari.
But of course, nearly every smartphone out today is optimized for some flavor of ARM chip, so there are compatibility and porting challenges either way. Regardless, Intel is clearly aiming for its chips to be competing with ARM-based designs in a lot more markets in the future.