Qualcomm vs. Intel: You decide

Qualcomm has a chip called Snapdragon. Intel has Atom and Moorestown.

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
3 min read

Qualcomm has Snapdragon. Intel has Atom and Moorestown. Which of these chips is (will be) a more viable, compelling chip for the fit-in-your-pocket device and ultralight computer market? I'll let the reader decide.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon is a highly integrated chip that is shipping now. Products are due in Q1 2009.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon is a highly integrated chip that is shipping now. Products are due in Q1 2009. Qualcomm

All of these chips are targeted at mobile Internet devices, like the Apple iPhone, and ultralight (less than 3 pounds) notebooks, like the Asus Eee PC. Two (Snapdragon and Moorestown) are aimed at high-end smartphones.

Here's a very quick overview of the silicon. You decide which seem more compelling.

Atom is here now. For Intel, it is a very-low-power chip (but not considered low-power in the cell phone world), boasting a thermal envelope of about two watts, compared to 35 watts for a typical Intel Core 2 chip for laptops.

Atom, however, is not highly integrated. Graphics, audio, memory controller, and communications silicon are all on a separate chipset.

Importantly, Atom runs the same software and Web applications as any other x86 architecture Intel chip in a typical PC. This is a big selling point for Atom (or any Intel chip for that matter), according to Intel.

But Atom isn't fast. High-end Atom processors (1.6GHz) benchmark more or less on par with a low-end Celeron processor. (Celeron is Intel's low-end line of processors.) And Intel is on the record saying that Atom is similar in performance to circa 2003-2004 Pentium mobile chips.

Less is known about Intel's Moorestown (see graphic below), due in 2009 or 2010. This much is known: it will integrate additional logic, bringing it more in line with silicon designs in the smartphone market--at which Moorestown is targeted. For example, the SOC (system-on-a-chip) will integrate components like the memory controller and graphics, boosting communication speeds between these crucial devices. And, like Atom, it will run all the popular software on PCs today.

Enter Qualcomm and Snapdragon (aka Qualcomm QSD8250 and QSD8650), which is targeted at high-end smartphones and mobile Internet devices.

The key difference between Snapdragon and Atom (Intel's only well-documented processor for ultrasmall devices) is power and integration. Qualcomm--because of its background in the cell phone market where integration and low-power are the name of the game--has packed a lot of features onto one piece of silicon that is short on power consumption and long on battery life. By comparison, delivering integration and long battery life in a tiny device are not things Intel has focused on in the past.

(Qualcomm has been involved in the market for cell phone silicon since the early 1990s. Intel isn't even a player yet.)

Another salient point: Qualcomm isn't licensing the technology from ARM in the traditional sense. The company has licensed the instruction set only and then built its own processor, allowing it to boost the clock speed to 1GHz and beyond while keeping the power low. Snapdragon, however, is not a speed demon. It will offer relatively good performance within the targeted power envelope.

Key features: Snapdragon operates below 0.5 watts, is based on the newest ARM v7 instruction set, runs as fast as 1GHz, and integrates almost everything including the processor, GPS, an ATI graphics core, multimedia (digital signal processor), and 3G modem, all on one 15mm X 15mm piece of silicon (see graphic).

Qualcomm is claiming cell phone-like battery life.

The San Diego-based company is shipping Snapdragon to customers who will ship products in the first quarter of 2009. HTC and Samsung have announced that they will bring out products based on Snapdragon.

Moorestown silicon due in 2009-2010 is the closest thing Intel has to Qualcomm's Snapdragon
Moorestown silicon due in 2009-2010 is the closest thing Intel has to Qualcomm's Snapdragon Intel