Intel vs ARM and the future of mobile technology

by: Robert TriggsJanuary 27, 2014


Image: Notebookcheck

Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek, and Nvidia, are some of the biggest mobile SoC manufacturers, regardless of the operating system. Their combined market shares account for the vast majority of all smartphone and tablet chips, and they all share one thing in common – their CPU hardware is based on ARM’s Cortex-A series of processors. Intel may be the still dominant company in PC and Windows markets, but it’s having a much tougher time in the mobile world, with only a small range of semi-successful Windows tablets and handsets to its name.

How did ARM come to dominate the smartphone market, and what, if anything, can Intel do to challenge ARM for the mobile SoC crown?

Intel needs a mobile win

Intel is behind in the mobile space, that much is for certain, and virtually every market analyst agrees that the tech giant is now on the wrong side of the technology market.

According to a Gartner report published towards the end of last year, tablet shipments are expected to grow by 43% throughout 2014, mobile phones by another 5%, whilst PC and laptop sales are expected to fall a further 7%.

Device Shipments 2013

Looking at the numbers, the tablet market is set to almost catch-up to PC shipments this year, and the mobile phone market eclipses them both. With hindsight, Intel needed to be on the mobile bandwagon years ago, but instead is stuck as the dominant incumbent in a declining market.

Turning to finances, Intel’s recent earnings call sheds a more accurate light on the situation. The company’s yearly operating income and net income were both down, 16% and 13% respectively. On the upside revenue remained fairly steady, down just 1%. This suggests that Intel is spending more to keep itself in the race, but perhaps the declining PC market isn’t harming Intel’s revenue as much as many would like to believe.

Intel’s billion dollar profits don’t show signs of disappearing anytime soon, but complacency will almost certainly lead to trouble if the PC market continues to shrink. An Intel chip in a major mobile device would go a long way to proving that Intel really can compete with ARM, but so far success has remained elusive.

Why has ARM been so successful?

Rise of ARM 2009 - 2014

ARM’s story couldn’t be any different from Intel’s. The Cambridge based company has ridden the smartphone revolution right from the beginning, the company started out designing CPUs for Apple back in the early 90s.

However, it wasn’t just good connections that have helped ARM prevail. ARM’s focus on low power processors has proven to be an excellent match for smartphones, whilst Intel has been stuck attempting to slim down its powerhouse hardware.

Perhaps even more important to the company’s success is its business model. Unlike Intel, ARM doesn’t manufacture anything, it only sells its intellectual property to other companies. Visionary businesses, like Qualcomm, are responsible for much of ARM’s success, having identified and developed some of the most comprehensive mobile SoCs from ARM’s designs.

Intel vs ARM revenue

A comparison of the share of revenue generated by Intel and ARM based manufacturers. Sources: EW/iSuppli

ARM and its business partners have changed the nature of hardware development by relying on the spontaneous order of global markets rather than speculating on future demand. Intel, and others, have simply failed to predict the future well enough to give smartphone developers what they really need.

The next battleground: 64-bit, power efficiency, and “next-gen” performance

Of course that’s all in the past. Intel is now paying much more attention to the mobile market and has a range of low powered Atom based mobile processors already in the market. So far nothing has been able to break ARM’s stranglehold, but Intel does have a new line-up of chips on the way.

First up is the Bay Trail tablet chip, a 22nm 64-bit SoC that will appear in quad and dual core varieties. Bay Trail marks Intel’s first real top-tier competitive mobile SoC, featuring integrated graphics from its high end Ivy Bridge architecture and comparable CPU performance to ARM’s popular Cortex A15. Overall, the Bay Trail chip is expected to perform somewhere between the popular Snapdragon 600 and 800 SoCs, a marked improvement over the lackluster Clover Trail architecture. Importantly, Intel’s CEO recently told investors that the first Android tablets powered by this technology will be appearing in the second quarter of this year.

Looking a little further ahead, Intel will be the first company to offer a 14nm mobile chip with Cherry Trail, which is scheduled for the second half of 2014. This will offer significant energy efficiencies and performance gains, and could pose a strong threat to ARM developers who are mostly stuck on 28nm.

intel_atom 14nm

Intel is pulling ahead with its manufacturing process. This could be Intel’s opportunity to catch up with improved energy efficiency.

Intel is also moving nicely along with its smartphone technology. The company’s new Merrifield architecture, which should be nearly twice as fast as CloverTrail+, is scheduled to appear at the upcoming Mobile World Congress 2014 and will offer up LTE capabilities too. It probably won’t be enough to rattle ARM, as CloverTrail+ was very disappointing, but the mid-2015 all new Broxton design might just be Intel’s big chance.

Broxton is a big change for Intel, as it will finally combine the company’s smartphone and tablet technology into a single SoC, which will be far easier to tailor to specific needs. As well as a revamped architecture, Broxton’s more modular design should help Intel bring out new chips faster and cheaper than it’s currently able to, potentially removing one of ARM’s big advantages. Intel also has plans to bring its Atom processor to the entry level market with its SoFIA chips, scheduled to land in the second half of 2014. Unfortunately Intel is again lagging behind on integrating LTE into this SoC, which won’t appear until 2015.

Things might look healthy for Intel but ARM is also ready for the dawn of 64-bit mobile processing, the company is currently readying its new ARMv8 architecture. The first mobile processor using this technology will be the new Cortex A53 CPU.

Unlike Intel’s next line-up of processors, which all aim to beef up their performance, the Cortex A53 is much more modest chip. CPU performance is expected to be somewhere around the old Cortex A9, so it won’t be replacing ARM’s current high-end Cortex A15. But we shouldn’t be disappointed, low power chips will result in superior battery life for smartphones, or spare power left to squeeze in additional cores. The Snapdragon 410 is scheduled to be the first 64-bit ARM processor that we’ll see in a smartphone, with the chip will be heading our way in the second half of the year.


A normalized performance comparison of ARM’s upcoming CPUs. Although this comparison is directly from ARM, so take it with a pinch of salt.

ARM may be targeting power efficiency and low cost first, but its A57 processor should eventually bring the big performance boosts that you’d expect from a new generation. There’s also future big.LITTLE chips to look forward too, which will combine the low power CortexA53 with the peak performance of the A57 to help strike a superior balance between performance and battery life. We’ll have to wait and see if/when the Cortex A57 will make an appearance in mobile technology. Perhaps Samsung’s upcoming 64 bit chip will be the first.

Outside of ARM’s architecture development, its business partners are preparing new chips well outside the breadth of Intel’s plans. The new Snapdragon 805 is sure to keep ARM at the top of the mobile performance chart and the new Adreno 420 GPU is far more impressive than anything in Intel’s line-up. Similarly, Nvidia’s Tegra K1 is set to offer “console quality” gaming based on an ARM CPU. MediaTek, on the other hand, continues to pump out low-end, power efficient ARM chips suitable for budget devices. Intel’s doesn’t yet have anything to compete with this range of processors.

Finally, below is a roadmap comparison between key Intel and ARM manufacturer releases, to demonstrate who’s likely to achieve which milestones first.

Intel vs ARM roadmap

Based on what we know, ARM looks set to retain its lead for the foreseeable future, due to Qualcomm’s LTE integrated chips and strong CPU/GPU components across the board. Intel is looking increasingly promising on the tablet CPU front, and will be the first to both 64-bit and smaller manufacturing process milestones. Intel’s attention to budget smartphones could also pay off, but it’s unlikely that the company will be able to challenge ARM in the top-tier smartphone category until 2015, when it improves LTE support.

Perhaps there are other markets that Intel stands to do better in?

  • Tjaldid

    I’m wondering about the future of Both ARM and Android, and I just can’t see how those will remain dominant, Android and ARM because of Full Windows 8 and Full Ubuntu and possibly even OSX coming to the I-Devices.

    I just don’t see how Android can compete to be dominant.

    • Guest

      because most people don’t need such a bloated OS.

    • Ivan Budiutama

      the question is why it should? Full windows, full ubuntu, hell I don’t even see the Nvidia K1 point on making the “console quality” gaming. I mean, let’s be fair nothing beats PC when it comes to gaming. But full windows on phone? I don’t think so, even with my 6Cells 5200 mAh laptop it only lasts 3 hours on heavy gaming. Leave alone a mobile device. Unless you find it practical carrying a 24″ tablet with 5 Kgs weight.

      If I need a serious gaming, I choose PC, (laptop at the very “tolerate-able” situation in the name of mobile). Talking about serious gaming, I want my 24″ display for the best experience. Unless the tablet comes in full fold-able screen I don’t see this coming in 2015. As for NVidia K1 Tegra, while it’s good on paper, let’s not forget about power consumption and the most important fact: who will develop the game? I still don’t see a breakthrough in mobile/phone gaming except Clash of Clan-esque, or Candy Crush-eque which doesn’t require that much of raw power in graphic.

      Why a mobile phone then? well pretty much everything else. notes, reminder, calendar, email, messangers. e-book reading, internet browse (while denied access from PC) and with google Now getting better, I find it quite convenience. In short, all these breakthroughs in chipset architect the one that I find useful is the focus on power consumption, I might be wrong, sorry for the long post, Here’s some potato:

      • Jayfeather787

        POTATO DETECTED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SELF DESTRUCT!!

    • Because… …Google – with huge resources to keep throwing not only at Android but also at the whole growomg complex of Google services integrated into it…. …and being built on a ‘nix core pretty much takes care of any market share threat from Ubuntu.

      (I’ve watched the continual promises of Linux breakout since the start – it’ll likely always have a niche among geeks for as long as OSes matter, but never be mass market, especially since Android matches its “non-price” of free.)

      And Windows mobile will take years to gain real traction given its numerous stumbles out of the gate and turmoil within the corporation – which hasn’t found a successor CEO in nearly 8 months and running – and no one knows how it will do at running the Nokia properties it’s buying.

      While any OSX implementation will be running only on Apple’s increasingly proprietized chips, keeping it firmly within its self-limiting universe.

      Also, you didn’t mention Samsung. They’ve got big ambitions which I personally don’t think will carry the day in this decade at least, but you can’t ignore them either.

    • ERYREB

      That comparison exists today. Surface tablets from Microsoft run full Windows 8, yet have a tiny proportion of the tablet market versus Android. Clearly most people don’t share your view. Why do you think it would be any different on smartphones?

    • Bonzo

      You also had me wondering about the future of ARM, given the news that Intel is using its millions to pay mobile device makers to build Atom-based Android tablets/phones. I think the point is that Google needs ARM as much as ARM needs Google (and Android). Google needs ARM SOC vendors to compete with Intel to keep prices low and quality high on its Android tablets and especially its Chromebooks. The recent call by Google for more ARM Chromebooks is a case in point – It wouldn’t surprise me if Google is actually “incentivising” Samsung to produce the new Exynos 5420 based Chromebook.

      By the end of 2014, maybe 2015, I’m hoping we’ll finally see ARM-based laptops running Ubuntu given that Canonical is currently hard at work to make Ubuntu run easily on ARM devices. I don’t see why these can’t compete effectively with Wintel laptops and grab a significant market share for ARM. I’m running Ubuntu now and, for me, it does everything that Windows can do.

  • Brendon Brown

    Still cant see Tablets taking over the tasks of a PC :|

    • lacompacida

      How is PC going to take over tasks of a tablet ? Ditching the keyboard will help.

      • Brendon Brown

        The very reason for the physical keyboard and a beautiful large screen is the reason i like Laptops and Desktops, allot better for things like programming, video editing, making music and gaming …

    • Jules

      At one point every device is so powerfull, etc. that you just connect or beam display, keyboard etc. and turn mobile device into ‘desktop’ at home or any workstation. Wasn’t Ubuntu aiming at such kind of hybrid?

      I will never ever for starters buy a desktop or laptop again. I must at least be a convertable.

  • Julien Sc

    If using Intel-powered smartphone means I can install full Windows 8 on phone, I’m in!!

    The reason I love Intel tablet is the -full- Windows 8 support, unlike its dead cousins RT/WP on ARM. Now if Intel can make it into smartphone too..
    It’s irony that with each passing year, mobile device hardware tend to be more powerful, but mobile OS tend to be more limiting.

    • mustbepbs

      You want full Windows 8 on a 5″ phone? For what reason?

      • mmmmmbop

        Drop that bad boy in a dock and you have a full computer ready to go.

  • lacompacida

    Intel went through the whole PC evolution and shouldeh know that apps is the key to survival of an architecture. In the mobile arena, which ecosystem has the most popular apps wins, and hardware manufactures should try to get its hardware on those bandwagons. And the OS is the glue between the hardware and those apps. So getting someone, or a partnership, or DIY, and build a version of the OS’s with the most apps will help the hardware to survive. Intel should try to build iOS or Android for its hardware.

  • John Grabb

    Mr. Triggs good article. However, the word ridden is not appropriate, the word should have been rode the smartphone market. Not a small thing since the word ridden is a negative approximately meaning infected or overrun with.

  • Simon Johnson

    Seriously great article Robert! The content on Android Authority is starting to rival some of the best I’ve seen on mobile technology. Thank you for the hard work and keep it up!

  • apianist16

    A good, balanced and informative article! Thanks!

  • Jayfeather787

    I was suprised to see so little qualcomm chips in tablets last year. I expected a little bit more, considering the Nexus 7 2013 sold so well.

    • renz

      i heard that Nexus 7 2013 did not sell as much as google hope for. already heard rumor about this year google will move to 8 inch form factor instead of making another 7 inch nexus tablet. and the rumor has it will use intel SoC instead of ARM

      • Jayfeather787

        Dang. I think Snapdragon is the best.

  • JamesWimberley

    The long-term issue for Intel is about the money. It’s maintaining its revenues just now but its profits are falling as it throws money at buying market share. The ARM ecosystem is much, much leaner. Apple buys its cutting-edge ARM-based iPhone SOC from Samsung at a little over $20. At the other end of the smartphone market, Mediatek’s simpler but adequate SOCs are a fraction of that. Each assault by Intel on the tablet and smartphone market costs its bottom line millions.

    Give Intel the benefit of the doubt and suppose it grabs a large market share in mobile. But it won’t be making a lot of money as a result. As its profits erode (and remember that its fat margins on server chips are also coming under pressure from ARM licensees), how can Intel maintain its leadership in process technology?;

    One answer is to give up on chip design and become the world’s best merchant chip fab.

  • Bakamoona

    Great stuff mate. Keep up the good work! One of the best articles I’ve read for a while.