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ARM, Intel face off on mobile PCs

Posted: 09 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:X86 processor? ARM architecture? mobile PC?

The emerging market of mobile handhelds has brought about a new rivalry in ARM Holdings and Intel Corp.

ARM has been working with partners for 18 months to define a product category to sit in the gap between the smart phone and the laptop computer. Meanwhile, Intel reckons it knows what will sit there and has been talking about the Ultra Mobile Personal Computer (UMPC) platform.

Going head to head, who has the better strategy for mobile processor success? Will future mobile handhelds run on an x86 or ARM instruction set architecture?

Intel's strategy is to provide x86 processors that will "offer leading performance while reducing the footprint and power consumption," according to Jon Jadersten, European marketing manager for the ultra mobile group at Intel. In other words, the chip giant wants to equip the x86 to invade ARM's traditional domain: low-power handhelds. To that end, it has produced three "platforms"!McCaslin, Menlow and Moorestown!essentially reference designs that show OEMs what is possible with upcoming Intel silicon.

ARM's strategy, on the other hand, is to keep producing processor architectures and cores optimized for the semiconductor manufacturing capabilities of its licensees and the needs of their customers.

x86 vs. ARM architecture
Intel's Menlow consists of a Silverthorne 45nm processor, a support chip called Poulsbo for controlling I/O and graphics, and a communications module that can be either Wi-Fi- or WiMAX-capable. Moorestown combines the functionality of at least the first two chips into one, and Intel claims to be reducing idle power consumption by an order of magnitude with each platform. However, neither platform intrinsically supports GPS, 3G or even 2G.

Jadersten said young people would want to continue the social networking activities started on the PC and take them mobile, and he predicted this form of interactivity would dominate handheld traffic for the "always on" generation. He argued in favor of the downward flow of software, saying, "The software community is already on x86. They can develop on the PC and deploy on Menlow.

However, not everyone is convinced. Francois Meunier, semiconductor analyst with JP Morgan Cazenove in London, is inclined to suggest a pox on both their houses. "There's a lot happening at both the high and the low end," said Meunier. "Nokia wants the low-end phone to have access to the Internet because it wants to expand service revenues. ARM may be the incumbent, but are we going to see five ARM cores in future designs? No."

Meunier added, "The mobile phone is better positioned than the mobile PC to fill the vacuum. If you want to know why, ask consumers. Mobile phones don't crash. Intel needs to question its form factor."

Intel's already doing so. It has begun talking about Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), which would sit below the UMPC but above the smart phone, and look a lot like the iPhone. "The Internet experience on the handheld is suboptimal. We believe we can close that gap," said Jadersten. While early 2008 introductions will be UMPCs as Menlow gives way to Moorestown, the MID will come to dominate, he said.

But for some observers, what Intel is talking about is already here!and powered by ARM.

"We're talking about screen sizes in the 5- to 6-inch space," said Ian Drew, segment marketing VP for ARM. "We see it [the product category] as a grownup smart phone. We certainly think our experience of more than 10 years of saving power in mobile phones is relevant; it's what allows a variety of products."

A particular instruction set or OS is not the key, Drew said, rather, the company must get the whole package right. "There is a business philosophy difference. ARM has 100 to 200 partners in our ecosystem, and we allow them to build with our IP. Intel sets out a standard. But really it's about how the differences are manifested to end customers!power/performance, the software stack, in a form factor that people like."

Jadersten argued that by letting Intel define the platform architecture, OEMs get assurances about software compatibility, power consumption and faster time-to-market. "It's up to OEMs if they want to do something else. We also provide help with branding and marketing," he said.

Should that sound like a threatening loss of control to the likes of Nokia and Vodafone? Maybe. But Jadersten has an additional argument that is harder to resist: the Intel manufacturing machine.

How will future ARM-based processors!however good the architecture!compete with Intel processors one, two or more silicon process generations ahead? "The performance message sticks with the users, whether they are OEMs or service providers," said Jadersten. "We want to work with these guys. The edge we have is a performance vector and an aggressive manufacturing regime."

"The ARM11 and the Cortex A8!they've got the performance to meet all this," argued Drew. "The iPhone is a lot of the way there. However, this category is still at a nebulous stage. And it's not going to be us that defines it. It is going to be the 18- to 25-year-olds who are early adopters."

Then there is that gap in Intel's strategy. Neither Menlow nor Moorestown supports mobile telephony intrinsically, except as VoIP. Indeed, Intel sold its mobile phone baseband line to Marvell Technology Group in 2006. "Intel is working with 3G modem partners," said Jadersten, indicating that cellphone-capable MIDs based on Intel processors would come eventually.

Of course, Intel and ARM are not directly comparable. One is a high-volume chip company that sets standards; the other licenses IP and partners with multiple companies. That is kind of the point. One is king of the PC and notebook computer, and the other has become ubiquitous in the mobile phone by trying not to impose itself too much.

As long as the likes of Samsung, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Infineon and STMicroelectronics either make or can access leading-edge silicon, Intel will be kept at bay; that should be the case for most of 2008. But Apple likes to hop around to keep its silicon suppliers honest on price and could easily be designing a future-generation "iPhone Ultra" around Moorestown silicon. And it should be remembered that Intel could buy its way back into telephone silicon.

Thus, ARM must keep executing on its ecosystem strategy and roll out a multiprocessing architecture that is superior to Intel's!one that can overcome any deficit in performance due to manufacturing.

While Intel's approach appears to repeat previous mistakes made trying to address consumer and communications electronics, it's not going away. Said one ARM executive, who shall remain nameless, "Intel's a big company. I would never bet against them."

- Peter Clarke
EE Times

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