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Why Intel’s Processors Aren’t Big on Cellphones

Saturday, July 11, 2009
Under the hood of most netbooks lies a tiny Intel Atom chip. Intel’s low-power processor has fast become the silicon of choice for tiny computers, but not cellphone makers. Until last week’s Nokia-Intel partnership, most handset makers showed almost no interest in the world’s biggest maker of PC processors.

Meanwhile, Intel rival ARM, whose chips are packaged and sold through companies such as Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments, has gained nearly 90 percent of the cellphone processor market.

 “Traditionally cellphones have been designed on the ARM processor and it is not easy to change it, and cellphone makers don’t want to, as ARM-based chips have a significant advantage over the current generation Atom processors for quite a few reasons, say analysts.

The most important reason is Atom processors’ inability to offer power consumption on par with ARM’s chip. Add to that the notion that Atom is untested for mobile phones and the fact that many proprietary mobile-phone operating systems are not compatible with Intel’s x86 architecture, and it makes breaking into the cellphone market an uphill climb.

Now Intel is betting that ‘Moorestown’ the next generation of the Atom processors, which it plans to release in early 2010, will further its plans to get into phones. “Atom today is not suitable for cellphones,” acknowledges Pankaj Kedia, a director in Intel’s ultra mobility group. “But Moorestown will deliver the same level of performance as today’s Atom but with a 50x reduction in standby power and a 3x reduction in power when you are playing 1280x720 pixels video.”

Analysts expect PC sales for 2009 to reach 257 million units worldwide, while 269.1 million cellphones were sold in the first quarter of 2009 alone. Though smartphones, which require powerful processors, are still a small percentage of the overall phones market, it is a fast growing segment. When we say Intel wants to to be in the cellphone business, we are talking about a category where it can sell hundreds of millions of chips a year. And unlike in the PC business where Intel has to contend with just one big rival in the form of AMD, a number of companies have sprung up offering repackaged ARM processors.

Independent benchmarks on ARM vs. Atom power consumption are hard to come by for both Intel and ARM use their own marketing spin to prove one is superior to the other. But analysts are clear that ARM right now ranks much well ahead of Intel Atom. Consider these numbers for a moment (from ARM). For a 1000 mAH battery, the Intel Atom Z500 Atom processor running at 800 MHz offers 19 hours of sleep time and overall battery life of 7 hours. An ARM Cortex-A8 at 800 MHz offers weeks of sleep time and 6.9 days of average battery life — an order of magnitude greater..

Of course Intel will argue that this is based on the current N270 Atom, not Moorestown, but by the time Moorestown rolls out, ARM will have clients shipping Cortex-A9 based processors, and they will be even more lower-power. Experts estimate it could take up to two years to get handset makers get their OS operating systems compatible with Atom. Intel says handset manufacturers may never have to, since it is working on Moblin, a new operating system targeted at pocket-sized devices. It’s an extremely ambitious goal and for now the odds are not in Intel’s favor.

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