Intel smartphones are on the way--again

Intel will once again take a stab at making smartphone chips, a colossal market that the world's largest chipmaker has yet to compete in.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
4 min read

Intel is getting ready to make a long-belated entry into the smartphone market with a new-and-improved chip. But the usual questions linger.

A much-ballyhooed Intel-based phone from LG never materialized.  Will one this time around?
A much-ballyhooed Intel-based phone from LG never materialized. Will one this time around? LG

The most obvious ones are: Will it appear in a phone that is groundbreaking enough to entice buyers? And will this finally usher the world's largest chipmaker into one of the world's largest chip markets?

The answers are hard to come by--Intel is saying little about the chip, due later this year, or about customers at this point--though the trends are clear. Market researcher IDC said in February that vendors shipped about 101 million smartphones during the fourth quarter of 2010, surpassing, for the first time, the 92 million PCs shipped during the same period.

But Intel's reticence is understandable: it doesn't want to announce the chip without real phones in tow. Its current version of a chip slated for smartphones ("Moorestown") never found any top-tier takers in the phone industry, despite promises in 2009 that devices were in the works.

An LG phone that was preannounced two years ago never appeared. And Nokia's new alliance with Microsoft means a previously-announced Intel-centric partnership is not a priority. Those are mistakes Intel doesn't want to repeat--which may also have been contributing factors to this week's departure of the executive who headed up Intel's smartphone chip business.

"They understand the boy-who-cried-wolf reputation [they've incurred], so they are really trying to coordinate chip announcements and [phone maker] announcements so they'll be taken seriously," said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies, a marketing research firm.

The description Intel currently provides of the chip is only about 30 words. "Medfield is Intel's smartphone chip manufactured on the company's leading-edge 32 [nanometer manufacturing] technology. It will deliver high performance and competitive low power."

That vague description could imply a lot, however. Though Intel has not yet succeeded in making the kind of ultra-power-efficient chips required for smartphones, the company is arguably the world's premier chip manufacturer and building a low-power but very powerful processor is certainly a feat it's capable of. Competitors like Nvidia--whose chips currently power high-end smartphones from LG and Motorola--and Qualcomm do not make their own silicon and must compete to get silicon from the same manufacturing source.

Important aspects of the silicon are the same, too. For example, the core of Nvidia's chip--based on a design from U.K.-based ARM--is essentially identical to ARM designs now being offered by rivals like Texas Instruments or Qualcomm.

While this provides standardization for Android phone makers, it provides little wiggle room for chip differentiation. That's not the case for Intel's chip, which uses a proprietary in-house design built with in-house manufacturing facilities.

"Moving the smartphone lineup to their leading-edge process plays a big role in making Medfield competitive," said Feibus.

But others have doubts about how serious Intel is about chip designs in this area and how willing it is to tap into the meat of its most cutting-edge manufacturing tech, which is allocated mostly to its much more lucrative laptop PC silicon--a market it comfortably dominates with little competition.

"In order to be competitive, Medfield should be 22 nanometer," said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at chip consulting firm The Linley Group, referring to Intel's most advanced manufacturing tech, which is due later this year.

"Intel's going to be doing 22 nanometer PC products at the end of this year [but] they're not using their leading edge technology on the [Medfield] stuff," said Gwennap, who believes that Intel should abandon the standard practice of using lagging-edge technology for consumer silicon.

Another question is whether Intel will immediately crank out a dual-core processor--a specification that has become de rigeur for high-end smartphones from Motorola and is expected for upcoming Apple iPhones. "They're focusing on cutting power in this release (Medfield). So it's going to be hard for them to do anything that increases power," added Gwennap, who thinks it will be single core initially.

And Intel is still a long way from becoming a well-rounded phone chip supplier like Qualcomm, which supplies the entire gamut of phone chips, from the most pedestrian feature phones to the slickest smartphones and tablets. Though the wireless tech Intel acquired this year from Infineon should help it compete against cell phone chip stalwarts, it provides little more than parity.

Finally, let's not forget that Intel doesn't make the end product. Companies like LG--which is rumored to have a Medfield product in the works--do. And they are the final arbiters of the phone's design and interface, the two features that consumers key in on.

Medfield-based phones are expected midyear. Which means by the end of this year we should know whether Intel is in the running to be a major manufacturer of mobile phone chips or will remain for the foreseeable future what it has always been: PC processor supplier to the world.