Intel used ARM chips in wearables demos at CES

The semiconductor giant has been pushing its processors for use in smartwatches and other devices, but it used chips using rival architecture for some of its prototypes.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
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
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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off the company's new Edison product. James Martin/CNET
Intel's wearables demo at the Consumers Electronics Show generated a lot of buzz, but it turns out that not all devices had "Intel Inside."

The Santa Clara, Calif., semiconductor giant used ARM-based chips for some of the demos, the company confirmed, though it declined to specify which wearables used such chips. PCMag first reported the news.

Intel downplayed the use of the ARM chips. The company has held an ARM license for many years, and its Infineon acquisition also uses ARM. The smartwatch Intel showed at CES used an Infineon system-on-chip with an ARM core that has been on the market for a while, Intel spokesman Bill Calder told CNET. He noted that the watch was used to demonstrate geofencing and that Intel didn't talk about any plans to bring that specific device to market with partners.

Calder also said that Intel has done similar things in the past and that people shouldn't assume the company doesn't have processors ready for wearables.

"The goal is to get into the market as fast as possible with innovative designs and technologies," Calder said. "If that means using a third-party [chip] that's customized by Intel with all the software and product integration done by Intel...then we'll do it."

However, other industry sources have questioned whether Intel currently has chips that are low power enough to work in devices like headsets and smartwatches. And while Intel didn't directly say the devices shown at CES used its x86 chips, many assumed they did.

Intel's chips power the vast majority of the world's PCs and servers, but slowing computer sales make it vital for the company to expand into mobile devices. Intel has made many promises in smartphones but has yet to show any real results. Virtually every mobile device runs on chips based on a design by rival ARM Holdings, created by companies such as Qualcomm, Apple, and Samsung Electronics.

In wearables, however, Intel believes it can gain big traction early and help shape the sector. The company knows it can't miss another big market again, and it has positioned its Quark chip line for the wearables segment. However, Intel didn't finish that processor until a few months ago, with CEO Brian Krzanich unveiling it at the company's developer conference in September.

The wild, the weird, and the wonderful at CES 2014 (pictures)

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At CES last week, Krzanich emphasized Intel's efforts and vision for wearables. He showed off a headset nicknamed Jarvis that can integrate with a personal assistant app on a phone without even touching it. Intel also demonstrated a set of earbuds with biometric capabilities, as well as the smartwatch with geofencing. In addition, he showed off Edison, a full computing system, including Quark and connectivity, that's built inside an SD card.

"We have a long way to go, but we have a good chance in helping to define the space," Mike Bell, the head of Intel's mobile chip business, told CNET at CES. "We learned so much on phones and tablets...I'm optimistic we're going to have a big influence on this space as it rolls out, but it's going to take a lot of hard work."

Intel doesn't plan to sell any of the wearables it showed at CES, but it does want to work with partners to bring them to market. Calder said it will be up to customers whether they ultimately want to create the products using ARM chips or those from Intel. However, Calder said that didn't mean Intel would help partners build products that use ARM chips.

"The goal is to transition to Intel [chips] in the future," he said.

Bell, meanwhile, said at CES that Intel is taking a sort of "rolling thunder approach" to wearables news. It will reveal some details at one event and more at others in the future. The company could release more information next month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"We're going to have to act like a scrappy startup and fight for every design win," Bell said. "It's a lot more fun defining the segment than playing catch-up. "