Intel announces Quark: ultra-low power chips that might run your future smartwatch

by: Bogdan PetrovanSeptember 11, 2013

intel quark soc

Intel, the giant of the PC chip business, has so far failed to threaten ARM’s stronghold on the mobile systems-on-a-chip business. But if anyone in the industry can challenge ARM right now, that’s Intel, a hugely resourceful corporation with unmatched experience in designing and manufacturing chips.

For Intel, the main front of attack against ARM is the Atom line of SoCs, which go into products like smartphones and tablets. But there’s a class of devices where processors need to be even more frugal, and Intel is going for it with the new Quark family.

Quark chips will be based on the x86 architecture, which everyone’s familiar with from PCs, but will be smaller and will consume far less power than Atom chips. Intel claims that, compared core-to-core, Quark will be one fifth the size and use just one tenth of the power of the 22nm Silvermont-based Atom chips coming to devices in the following months. The first Quark chips will be built on a 32nm process.

(Video courtesy of Mobile Geeks)

The first Quark samples should ship in Q4 this year, but Intel didn’t specify a timeframe for a full release. According to Ryan Smith of AnandTech, the first customers for Quark will likely be industrial players, such as those activating in energy, construction, or transportation. For instance, Quark will allow Daikin McQuay, a giant in HVAC systems, to remotely control AC units on top of a building from the other side of the country.

The more exciting Quark applications for us Android lovers are wearable devices, such as smartwatches or smart glasses. Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear smartwatch offers 24 hours of battery life, which is limiting for most users, to say the least. Future wearable devices may have much longer battery life thanks to Quark (or similar designs from Intel competitors), while still offering great performance.

Intel is not the first company to look into ultra-low-power chips. Most notably, Imagination-owned MIPS is a big player in this field, while ARM offers its own ultra-low-power SoC designs codenamed Cortex M, and Qualcomm has probably customized a version of the ARM M3 for the recently announced Toq smartwatch.

Smartwatches and other wearables are just the tip of the iceberg.

And smartwatches and other wearables are just the tip of the iceberg. Quark chips could be installed in everything from home appliances, to smart light bulbs, to bicycles or cars. Low power, high performance chips are crucial for the Internet of Things, and Intel is clearly looking to stake a claim in this area.

One more thing – Intel announced that the Quark’s design will be synthesizable, meaning that customers will be able to add their own silicon onto it, for customization purposes. Moreover, while Intel prefers to make Quark chips in its own foundries, it’s also open to allowing third-parties to manufacture Quark-based chips.

That’s a big departure from Intel’s philosophy so far, which was to design and manufacture everything in-house, and worth a longer discussion in a separate post.

  • Roberto Tomás

    “Most notably, ARM offers its own ultra-low-power SoC designs codenamed Cortex M, while Qualcomm has probably customized a version of the ARM M3 for the recently announced Toq smartwatch.”
    I disagree with this. Wholeheartedly. ARM’s M0/M0+ platform is just the premium tip of a vast sea of low cost processors. MIPS is actually the king in this range, not ARM — they already have hundreds of millions, if not billions of processors out in the field, in live products.

    • You’re right I should’ve mentioned MIPS first. Added it.

    • Matthew Travous

      Cortex M series processors are for microcontrollers that need to have more power than a Microchip PIC32 or equivalent can provide. I don’t believe that they were meant for smart devices.

  • Jeldo Meppen
    • MasterMuffin

      German? :)

      • Jeldo Meppen

        Yes, indeed. Had quite a chuckle when I read it.

  • Paul M

    Years ago I used to develop software for the Intel 80C188 and 80C186, or NEC V25 and V35 microcontrollers, which were the cousins of the 8086 processors that were found in every PC. At that time Intel and Motorola were kings of 8 and 16 bit processors, but Intel had the edge with their development tools.

    When you consider that Intel had an ARM licence, and their StrongArm processor series, and sold it to Marvell and thereby gave away their share of the embedded Arm processor market, and have struggled to get Atom chosen by many companies, you do have to wonder which genius made that decision.

    • MasterMuffin

      Probably the same genius who names their processors :D

    • Matthew Travous

      That is the reason that the PXA270 and beyond have MMX and integer (no floating point) SSE on the chip.