Intel partners with MediaTek to make 5G chips for PCs

The two companies will try to compete with Qualcomm's technology for cellular-connected computers.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read
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Your 2021 PC might have 5G connectivity, thanks to Intel and MediaTek. The two companies are partnering to make cellular-connected computers, they both said Monday. 

Intel will "define" what a 5G PC should look like, and then MediaTek will develop the cellular chip for those devices. Intel also will help make sure the 5G chip works properly and will help computer makers integrate the processor into their devices. 

Dell and HP are two partners working on 5G laptops using the technology developed by MediaTek and Intel. The first devices should hit the market in early 2021. The 5G PC chip is based in part on MediaTek's Helio M70 5G modem, introduced earlier this year. 

The partnership helps MediaTek break into a bigger US market and prevents Intel from being shut out of 5G-connected PCs. It also helps Intel defends one of its most important markets: computers. It has long made the majority of chips that go into PCs, but rival Qualcomm has been gaining attention and ground with its processors originally designed for smartphones. Qualcomm's come with better battery life and connectivity not traditionally found in computers. 

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Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, people have started to spend more time on their phones and less time on their PCs. They also hold onto computers longer than their mobile devices. The answer for Microsoft and traditional PC makers has been to turn computers into something more like phones. They've been working with Qualcomm on such devices for a couple of years, and Intel, the world's biggest PC chipmaker, has started to jump into the fray. 

Intel earlier this year introduced its Project Athena initiative, a multiple-company, multiple-year effort to make PCs more like computers. Devices are meant to wake instantly, sport brighter screens for outdoor use and have battery life that lasts all day. Project Athena laptops also need to be able to complete a biometric login process in a second or less after a laptop lid is opened, and Athena gets an additional second to connect to Wi-Fi. The first devices are due this year, but they're not cellular-enabled.

For that, users have to turn to Qualcomm-powered PCs. 

Always-connected PCs

Seven years ago, Qualcomm worked with Microsoft and a handful of computer makers on devices that ran a hobbled version of Windows, called Windows RT. They quickly abandoned those Windows RT devices, but over the past couple of years, they revitalized the efforts to put smartphone chips in computers.

Two years ago, Qualcomm unveiled its renewed push. The first two devices announced at its Snapdragon Technology Summit in 2017 -- 2-in-1 laptops from HP and Asus -- promised more than 20 hours of battery life, always-on connectivity and the ability to instantly wake up. And importantly, they ran full Windows and could use ordinary Windows apps. They used the Snapdragon 835 processor and the X16 modem.

Last year, Qualcomm unveiled its first processor designed specifically for computers, called the Snapdragon 8cx Compute Platform. The chip is powerful but also power efficient, giving users multiple days of battery life on a single charge. Many PC makers have started using Qualcomm chips. That includes the Samsung's Galaxy Book S, which was unveiled in August and runs on the 8cx. The ultrathin, ultralight laptop has a 13.3-inch touchscreen and sports 23 hours of battery life. It also has built-in LTE. 

Getting into 5G

Qualcomm has one big advantage over Intel: the ability to build 5G chips. 

While Intel once had grand ambitions in the modem business, it since has pared back its efforts. The company struggled to make a 5G chip for Apple's iPhones, and it exited the cellular modem business after Apple and Qualcomm reached a multiyear chip supply agreement in April. In July, Apple and Intel jointly announced that Apple planned to buy Intel's smartphone modem business for $1 billion. The deal likely gives Apple access to some of Intel's work on 5G technology

There are really only four companies in the world making 5G chips: Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei. Samsung and Huawei largely only use their 5G chips in their own devices (though a new phone from Vivo will use Samsung's Exynos 5G modem). Intel wouldn't partner with Qualcomm, a company it views as its chief rival. Qualcomm has supplied 5G modems for the vast majority of phones this year. 

MediaTek, for its part, predominantly supplies modems to Asian handset makers. Its first 5G modem won't work on any of the 5G networks that are live in the US. 

Intel and MediaTek now hope their efforts will be enough to fend off Qualcomm and attract PC makers.

"This partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world's best PCs," Gregory Bryant, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's client computing group, said in a statement.