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Processor battle moves to consumer computing

Posted: 30 Jul 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:consumer computing? processor battle? CPU?

The Internet doesn't play favorites. In principle, consumer computing devices can use any processor powerful enough to run a full-featured browser. In practice, however, two contenders stand head and shoulders above the rest: ARM, the champion of handsets, and Intel, king of the PC.

The clash between these titans will be a battle of epic proportions. Here's how these competitors stack up, and how the battle is likely to play out. But first, a word about the markets these chips are fighting for.

Consumer computing devices can take on a variety of forms, but most will resemble today's laptops and mobile handsets. There is considerable debate as to what to call these two classes of devices. The term mobile Internet device is usually used to describe handset-like devices, but OEMs such as Dell use the same term to refer to laptop-like devices. To complicate matters, Qualcomm uses completely different terms: personal computing device for handset-like machines and mobile computing device for laptop-like machines. To avoid the confusion, we'll use the more descriptive terms handset-like devices and laptop-like devices.

Intel's current offering, the Atom Centrino, exclusively targets laptop-like devices. This chipset consists of an Atom Z500 CPU and a separate system controller hub that provides I/O as well as accelerators for high-definition video and 3D graphics. The Atom Centrino platform also calls for a wireless radio (Wi-Fi, 3G or WiMAX), but the baseband chip is not included as part of the Atom package; system designers have to choose that part for themselves.

The ARM side of the battle is being fought by several ARM licensees, most notably Nvidia, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. All three target handset-like devices. Qualcomm additionally targets laptop-like devices and poses the most direct competition to Intel. Qualcomm's SnapDragon also comes closest to matching Atom's performance. Unlike Atom, however, SnapDragon includes a wireless baseband processora major difference, particularly considering that SnapDragon is a single-chip solution.

TI is notable mainly for its low power and high level of acceptance: The Omap 3 platform has more than 40 design wins. Nvidia's Tegra, meanwhile, focuses on graphics performance. Both chips are noteworthy for their extremely small packages.

For now, Intel has the advantage in performance, while the ARM chips win on size and integration. The big unanswered questions are how these competitors stack up on power and cost. Power comparisons are difficult because each vendor reports power numbers under different conditions. However, my back-of-the napkin calculations suggest Intel and ARM are much closer than ARM would like you to believe. The cost comparison is more of a mystery because the ARM licensees do not publish pricing.

Wherever things stand now, they are sure to change quickly. Intel's Moorestown, a next-generation Atom expected in late 2009, will integrate the CPU and GPU on a single chip, allowing Intel to compete for handset-like devices. And don't expect ARM and its licensees to stand still.

- Kenton Williston
EE Times

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