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

Intel’s new Quark SoC family is designed for applications where ultra-low power consumption is essential, such as smartwatches and other wearable computers.
September 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.