Intel on Tuesday announced its long-awaited Atom chip for smartphones and tablets, a crowded market populated by a host of formidable rivals--unlike the PC market where it dominates.
Previously known by the code name "Moorestown," the Atom Z6 processor series will "open the door" for Intel chips in the smartphone market, said Pankaj Kedia, director in the Ultra Mobility Group. To date, Intel's Atom has been used primarily in Netbooks, where it has been adopted widely by all major PC makers and been an unqualified hit.
"The specific focus of Moorestown is entering the smartphone segment but it also does very well, it scales very well in the tablet segment," Kedia said. The entire package of chips is composed of the Atom Z6 series system-on-a-chip and two accompanying pieces of silicon. The system-on-a-chip is the "brains of the smartphone" and does all of the heavy lifting such as the core data processing, the handling of video and audio streams, and graphics, Kedia said.
"This time the Atom architecture was defined so it could (fit) into the high end of the smartphone segment," said Belliappa Kuttanna, chief Atom Architect.
Compared with Intel's relatively power-hungry PC processors, Moorestown's most distinctive characteristic is its power frugality. Standby time using a "BlackBerry-style" battery is 10 days. Active battery time, when Web browsing or watching video, for example, is about five hours, said Kedia, who claimed battery life is competitive with high-end "premium" smartphones. (Though Kedia didn't mention any by name, premium smartphones include Apple's iPhone and Motorola's Droid.)
But Intel's hallmark feature is performance. "When you look at Web page type of performance. For example, Java-script-rich Web sites. Specifically, how fast the Web pages load. We're getting less than two seconds. The best phones out there--nine or ten seconds," he said. "Performance matters if you're going to use the Web in its entirety," said Kedia.
And don't forget the software
The new Atom technology will support a version of the Linux operating system jointly backed by Intel and Nokia called MeeGo, Intel's Moblin (which MeeGo is based on), and Google's Android operating system. "Software is a very important piece (of the technology)," according to Kedia.
Other software that Intel is backing includes Adobe Systems' Flash, Microsoft's Silverlight, Axel's Fuugo Internet TV, and Skype.
And what will all of this software run on? Devices that are being showcased this week by Intel include an, an Aava phone, and a tablet from OpenPeak that AT&T plans to design a tablet around. The Aava phone uses a 3.8-inch diagonal screen, is thinner than a BlackBerry Bold and runs a 1.5GHz Atom. The OpenPeak tablet is seven inches diagonally running a 1.9GHz Atom.
Kedia emphasized that Tuesday's announcement is not a product roll-out but an announcement of processor shipments and technology only. "This is not the PC space. It takes more time from a software perspective, more time from service provider perspective. We are shipping final production silicon to customers now but you should expect first devices from customers beginning in the second half."
The challenge for Intel is large and one it currently doesn't face in the PC market: multiple competitors. Rivals include chip heavyweights Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Marvell, and Nvidia--all offer power-efficient processors based on a design from United Kingdom-based ARM. "Smartphones today are handheld computers that happen to make a phone call," said Kedia. "When you think about performance and when you think about where the Internet has been driven, that has been our strength. Has ARM had lower power than Intel? Yes. But it's also had lower performance."
"Since ARM has been in that business longer than us, they're taking advantage of the opportunity. But we are just getting started," said Kuttanna.
Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw, puts this sentiment more bluntly. "They've publicly said that only in the next version of Atom--which is a 2011 event--will power consumption be low enough to truly address the smartphone market. That's been the official positioning so I don't know what's changed. In terms of actually making a push into the ARM market, that's likely to be a 2011 event," Kumar said.