Intel playing catch-up with new mobile chips

The company lost $4.2 billion in mobile last year but hopes these new chips will help turn that business around.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

Intel came to Mobile World Congress to demonstrate its commitment to mobile -- and to unveil new chips. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- Intel on Monday unveiled a new set of mobile chips, with the hope that these more powerful processors will help it catch up to rivals in the smartphone and tablet markets.

The company revealed at the Mobile World Congress show here its Atom x3, x5 and x7 mobile chips. The x3, formerly known as SoFIA, will target budget smartphones and tablets, while the x5 and x7, formerly known as the "Cherry Trail" chips, will go into mainstream and high-end tablets.

"If you take a look at last year, I think we really made a lot of progress in mobile devices," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich told a crowd at Intel's show booth Monday. "We went from...really no presence, or very low presence, in the industry to hitting our goal of shipping 40 million tablets last year."

Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, is the leader in chips for personal computers and data centers. But it's well behind its competitors, including Qualcomm and MediaTek, in offering mobile chips. The company essentially ignored that market for years and is now spending heavily to try clawing its way to relevance there. In 2014, Intel lost $4.2 billion in its mobile business, though it expects to trim those losses this year, thanks in part to these new chips. Intel also said Monday it created a faster modem chip that will get it closer to catching up with Qualcomm's industry-leading modem technology.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich talked Monday about his company's work to grow in mobile. Sarah Tew/CNET

SoFIA was first announced in late 2013 as a chip for budget smartphones, a fast-growing segment for mobile in emerging markets. SoFIA, now called x3, is also Intel's first mobile system-on-a-chip, which brings together a processor and radio chip in one integrated package. A system-on-a-chip is usually more desirable for device makers because they can create slimmer and sometimes more powerful phones using such chips. The 3G version of the x3 is already shipping, but Intel said the faster 4G version won't be available until later this year.

The x5 and x7 will offer a big boost in graphics from their predecessors, as well as improved battery life and processing power. Device makers that already agreed to use the chips include Dell, Acer, Lenovo, HP and Toshiba, with products expected in the first half of this year.

Intel managed to reach its goal of getting its chips into more than 40 million tablets last year, thanks partly to it subsidizing the purchase of its mobile chips to device makers. However, the company has gotten its chips into far fewer smartphones, so it still has a long road ahead in its competition against mobile-chip leader Qualcomm.

Barcelona braces for Mobile World Congress (pictures)

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Krzanich said Monday that Intel intentionally focused on tablets first, since they were more directly connected to its main PC business. Still, he added that there will be a time when Intel sets a similar shipment goal for smartphone chips, though he said the company still needs another year or year and a half to get the right products in place.

The x3, x5 and x7 also offer a new set of names for the mobile-chip portfolio, following in Intel's naming of its PC chips, the Core i3, i5 and i7.

Updated, 9:47 a.m. PT: Adds Intel CEO comments and more details.