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Is Intel finally ready to take on its ARM rivals for dominance in the mobile world?

With recent developments from Intel, is the coming finally ready to take on its ARM rivals for dominance in the mobile world?
June 6, 2013

When you think of microprocessors, Intel is probably one of the first companies that comes to mind. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Intel’s mobile chips. Intel hasn’t exactly taken the mobile world by storm, as ARM-licensed SoCs from companies such as Qualcomm and Nvidia have instead taken the spotlight.

Just last month a fellow Android Authority colleague, Robert Triggs, wrote a piece asking “What does Intel need to do to succeed in the mobile space?” In the article, many great points were brought up about what needs to change at Intel.

The good news is that in less than a month’s time, Intel has already (arguably) started making moves that suggest they know what they need to do to succeed. While I don’t believe Intel will make a big dent in the mobile market this year, the company appears to be laying the groundwork for a major mobile onslaught that could push them forward as a major player in 2014 and beyond.

A rise in the number of Intel-powered mobile devices

The most obvious sign of change is that Intel mobile processors are showing up in more places.

Before 2013, you could easily count the number of non-Windows-based Intel mobile devices on your fingers. Now officials say that they expect more than 30 tablets using its processors to hit the market this year, and several of these will run on the power of Android.

“We’re seeing some really great momentum in our customers. We got over 30 tablet designs already on, across Android and Windows, and we expect to have them for the holidays.”

Intel on Android devices is nothing new. The problem is that devices like the Motorola Razr i and Asus FonePad weren’t exactly “high-profile”. Intel needs more exposure if they are going to win over more consumers.

Earlier this week at Computex, Asus announced it ready to bring Intel chips to more devices, revealing the FonePad Note (Atom) and Transformer Book Trio (Atom & Core i7). Of arguably more importance, Samsung also unveiled it would be bringing the power of Intel Inside over to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, which was clearly a big win for Intel.

Having a larger device presence is all well and good, but what else is going on at Intel that could indicate the company finally understands what it takes to break into the mobile scene?

Silvermont: Merrifield & Bay Trail-T

This upcoming platform represents a major evolution for the Intel Atom processors. Right now Intel is preparing two different chips that are based on the Silvermont platform, Merrifield and Bay Trail-T.

The first of these chips is designed with smartphones in mind, offering a low-power package that still offers plenty of processing oomph. Then there is Bay Trail, which will be aimed at Android and Windows tablets.

According to Intel, both of these Silvermont chips will offer 3x more peak performance, while also allowing 5x lower power usage than current-gen Atoms. This is significant. After all, existing Intel-powered devices have already shown that x86 chips can stomp all over ARM when it comes raw power. If Intel can increase this capability, while better competing with ARD chips when it comes to energy consumption — they could have a real winner on their hands.

Intel is also promising that Merrifield will incorporate a sensor support hub, which means that it will allow smart phones to continuously use sensors like GPS and accelerometers without consuming much power.

Intel Silvermont vs Saltwell performance

LTE integration and sensor support

Intel’s chips are taking a dramatic jump forward in processing power and energy consumption, but we’ve seen that before. What we haven’t seen is true all-in-one chip designs from Intel.

Intel needs more than great x86 processors to compete. Recently the company announced it is buying a GPS chip making chip division, certainly a good move. But that still doesn’t solve the lack of LTE integration for Intel.

Thankfully, Intel recently revealed that its XMM 7160 LTE modem is ready to go, and will be paired with next-gen 22nm Bay Trail Atom SoCs aimed at tablets with a release starting towards the end of this year.

This is only the beginning, as Intel plans to continue to push LTE integration and other technologies into its chip designs.

Perceptual Computing and Contextual Awareness

We have already heard talk about Motorola working on “contextual awareness” for the Moto X, but they aren’t the only ones interested in giving your mobile devices human-like senses and awareness.

Just two days ago, Intel execs detailed some of the company’s progress in this category, and Intel Capital announced a $100-million investment fund to further develop software and apps that bring these kinds of experiences to various Intel-powered devices.

According to Intel Executive VP Arvind Sodhani:

 “Devices with human-like senses – the ability to see, hear and feel much like people do – has long been a subject of science fiction but is now within reach given recent innovations in compute power and camera technology. This new fund will invest in start-ups and companies enabling these experiences, helping them with the business development support, global business network and technology expertise needed to scale for worldwide use.”

One of the developments from this project includes pushing Intel’s own version of Kinect, which relies on a camera created by Creative Technologies, called Senz3D.

The camera will probably make its way to PC before tablets or phones – but the point is that Intel is invested in finding ways to make our computing devices smarter, which in turn could make our lives easier.

A long road ahead..

Intel chips have long been held as champions when it comes to raw power, but power consumption issues and lack of chip integration made them less ideal in the mobile world.

It’s hard to say if Intel could have done much differently here (short of abandoning x86), or if x86 technology simply needed to mature in order to better take on ARM. Regardless of the reasons, recent breakthroughs seem to hint that Intel chips are now finally ready to play with the big boys in the mobile world.

Of course there is a lot more involved than just creating some solid chips and investing in some forward-thinking ideas. From improving marketing to creating new partnerships, Intel has a long road ahead if they want to give ARM chips a run for the money.

Intel has seen the writing on the wall, and if they want to remain relevant, they need to branch out beyond the PC. They seem to have the tools for success, now they just need to launch the attack, and hard.

What do you think, could 2014 be the year that Intel finally makes its mark in the mobile world? Conversely, do you feel I’m being way too optimistic about Intel’s mobile future?