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Intel opens its factories to ARM chips

Intel will fabricate processors based on its chief competitor ARM's designs as part of a new deal with chip designer Altera and other companies.

Intel has signed a partnership with chip manufacturer Altera, using its foundries to build an Altera-designed system on chip with the architecture of Intel's chief competitor, ARM.

Apple's A7 processor (based on ARM architecture). (Credit: iFixit)

Announced at the ARM TechCon in California, the latest move is a continuation of a deal between Altera and Intel signed in February. Intel will fabricate an Altera-designed, quad-core, 64-bit system on chip using ARM's Cortex-A53 architecture and its state-of-the-art, in-house, 14-nanometre production processes.

The Altera-ARM chip is a niche, user-programmable FPGA design, so it won't directly compete with any current Intel products. Intel's own x86 processors, used in many desktop and laptop computers, are designed for specific purposes, whereas an FPGA is more versatile but less specialised.

The deal is an important one, though; it essentially means Intel is opening itself up to producing chips for its competitors. Intel's chief competitor ARM is the dominant player in smartphone, tablet and mobile computing, and its processor designs are licensed by several companies, such as Qualcomm and Samsung.

Intel has several competitors in the semiconductor manufacturing market, including Samsung, GlobalFoundries and TSMC, who fabricate chips for other processor designers, such as Nvidia and Qualcomm. This move may draw business away from these competitors, giving Intel a volume advantage.

The processor architecture for Intel's latest "Bay Trail" Atom chipset. (Credit: Intel)

ARM-designed processors can be found in dozens of smartphone and tablet brands, like those from LG, Samsung and Nokia. Samsung actually manufactures the customised ARM processors used in Apple's iPhone and iPad products, as well as for its own devices.

Intel makes a viable competitor for ARM's low-power, mobile-friendly architecture in the new Bay Trail iteration of its x86 Atom chipset, but ARM has a huge advantage in that its chips are already widely used in many smartphones and tablets. In 2010, ARM architecture appeared in 95 per cent of all smartphones, as well as over a third of all digital televisions worldwide.

Intel's latest move to open its foundries to competing designs keeps its factories working at maximum productivity, providing the necessary funding for it to continue research and development of both new processor designs and new fabrication processes, for Intel and its new partners.