Intel, AMD, and ARM are About to Go to War

July 10, 2011
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    The entire mobile computing  market is about to experience a substantial change, from the predominant use of the ARM processor to that of Intel and AMD – potentially. Currently, the tablet market is dominated by ARM chips produced by Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Nvidia. And, until now, unlike laptops, tablets haven’t sported Intel or AMD silicon. Currently, as things stand, ARM’s chip designs are in virtually every tablet from Apple’s iPad, which uses Apple’s A5 chip, to Android tablets too, from the likes of Motorola, Samsung, Asus and others, that use chips mostly from Nvidia with ARM’s processors inside. But now, it’s clear that the two major players in the desktop market, AMD and Intel, are interested in the overgrowing tablet niche as Intel’s plans for tablets and smartphones are crystallizing into a clear roadmap, as the chip giant has already begun marshalling its considerable chip design and manufacturing forces to address markets where it is not competitive, yet.

    As Intel is surely planning to get an advantage over and change the game, its first system-on-a-chip for tablets and smartphones codenamed Medfield, will be a crucial component amongst its tough strategies, though chips that follow may be more important commercially. The Medfield SoC is supposed to arrive in the first half of 2012, followed by Clover Trail technology in the second half of 2012, as told by the Intel’s spokeswoman Suzy Ramirez. Both of those chips will be better suited to the power sensitivities of tablets and smartphones and anything in between; the latter referred to as convertibles or hybrids. Both Medfield and Clover Trail, Ramirez said in an e-mail, are targeted at tablet designs but could also be used as tablet hybrids.

    Generally, the smaller the chip geometry, the faster and/or more power efficient the chip is. So, Medfield marks Intel’s move to a 32-nanometer system-on-a-chip Atom processor for tablets and smartphones and finally leaving 45-nanometer Atom processors behind, should provide enough computing power and efficiency at the same time. Intel is saying those two architecture will scale for both tablets and smartphones. From what is being revealed by Intel’s plans’ followers, Medfield is likely to be a single-core processor and the system-on-a-chip Clover Trail variety a dual-core chip.  But a dual-core Clover Trail chip would be a good match for Windows 8 tablets and convertibles.

    Intel’s plans for Atom system-on-a-chip for tablets, hybrids, and smartphones:

    • Medfield: first half 2012, single core, 32-nanometer
    • Clover Trail: second half 2012, dual-core, 32-nanometer
    • Silvermont: 2013, new Atom architecture, 22-nanometer
    • Airmont: 2014, 14-nanometer

     

    Simultaneously, the new Microsoft operating system, dubbed Windows 8 for now, is expected to be released to consumers sometime in the second half of 2012. Where as recent speculation puts the Release to Manufacturing or RTM for Windows 8 in April. By then, Intel undoubtedly would be gearing up for high-volume production of Clover Trail chips. To this extent, Intel will have 4G/LTE silicon ready under its sleeves via the acquisition of Infineon’s wireless unit, confirmed David Perlmutter, an Intel senior vice president. So we might see an improved overall SoC, which is exactly what Intel did back in 2003 with the release of its Centrino platform. Though Intel’s Perlmutter has downplayed the over-emphasis on core counts (the number of processor cores inside the chip) while tablet competitors like Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments are already discussing plans to build quad-core chips based on ARM’s chip designs. Additionally,  Apple’s next-generation A6 for use in the upcoming iPad 3 is rumoured to be quad-core too.

    And, many are speculating that in 2012, Android won’t be the only game in town: Nvidia, along with Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, are all setting their sights on Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 operating system. All three of those companies will be leading chip suppliers for tablets and other devices running Windows 8, which will be compatible with ARM processors, not just Intel’s “x86″ architecture. And on the same front, Nvidia which is supplying its popular dual-core Tegra chip to Android tablet vendors like Motorola, Samsung, and Toshiba, has already started its planning to a roll out a quad-core chip later this year for tablets and high-end “super phones“. Quad-Core based Android products are expected to be announced by the end of the year.

    While talking about AMD – who has yet to deliver its dual core DirectX 11 compatible Brazos platform (announced last year) – is now working on the Brazos-T, codenamed “Hondo” for Windows 8 tablets, featuring a dual core design, also Direct X compatible, and most importantly, with a 2 watt app-power requirements, making it ideal for fanless systems. The chip will be manufactured in 40nm process; will get the Radeon 6250 integrated core and capable of 720p video playback. First samples are expected in December, with mass production scheduled for Q2 2012. If everything works fine it will also be here just in time for Windows 8.

    The market may see a great diverse modification in the field of mobile and tablet computing. They will have enhanced power, increased speed and efficient use of battery life. And for that to happen, Intel and AMD have to cut their work out for them, as ARM inevitably makes a play to reach parity with Intel in Windows 8 laptops and potentially in new-fangled Apple devices, which encroach further into precious shelf space at retailers. Let’s wait for the clock to turn and watch how Intel and AMD position themselves in a market already enthroned by ARM and Nvidia chips. Any thoughts?

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