Intel is finally ready to compete in the growing mobile computing market, which is dominated now by the UK firm ARM Ltd. The newest Atom CPU, "Medfield," is Intel's first mobile system-on-a-chip design. It greatly reduces energy consumption, which has been the major drawback for Intel chips in competing with ARM designs.
But getting phone manufacturers to consider using the Medfield chip is going to be a challenge for Intel. Most of the manufacturers are very comfortable licensing and using ARM-based CPUs.
The new 32-nanometer processor has one advantage over ARM's products. It is a bit more battery-hungry but more than makes up for it in processing power. This differentiation could be the key to Intel's success. The CPU could run apps that would choke ARM processors. Therefore, Intel will likely target the high-end market first, since these people likely require superior performance.
To mark its entry into the mobile processor market, Intel is showing off a smartphone and tablet at the CES in Las Vegas. Intel designed the devices in-house with the help of LG. And here's the kicker -- Intel is offering the designs for free to any manufacturer that wants to use them.
Free reference designs are not uncommon in the technology industry. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can use the reference design as a "proof of concept," and it reduces the time and money they need to design their own products. In Intel's case, it wants to get into this market while it has a competitive advantage over ARM, and OEMs can use as much or as little of the reference designs as they choose to build their own devices.
Intel hopes that OEMs will get on board, and that we'll see Medfield-based smartphones and tablets by the end of 2012.
The company is showing off a reference phone running Android 4.0. This is big news. Previous versions of Android did not support Intel-based processors. But Google announced in September that it would create x86-optimized versions of Android. This gives Intel an opening into the growing Android market.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the Medfield chips can run the Microsoft Windows 8 operating system. ARM processors can also run Windows 8, but the performance edge the Medfield processor holds is a major advantage and provides yet another avenue for Intel to creep into the tablet market.
It looks like 2012 will finally be the year we get a real choice of processors in our smartphones and tablets. About a year from now, we'll see if Intel's work in chip design, reference models, partnerships, and marketing has allowed it to make a dent in this market. But the steps Intel has already taken suggest it is off to a great start.