Thursday, May 06, 2010

Intel hots up the mobile computing platform

It looks like hand helds are the way forward. with intel making a big push, its time people sat up and took notice. With the intels atom processor, first made for netbooks, then moved to the ULCC and now finally to the handheld. Intel is taking ARM and TI head on.


Intel has begun a greater push into the mobile device market with new versions of its Atom processor that cut energy consumption sufficiently to fit inside a smartphone or web tablet, while offering greater performance than ARM-based chips, according to the firm.

Announced today, the Intel Atom Z6xx series forms part of Intel's Moorestown platform, and offers a claimed 50-fold reduction in power consumption compared with the previous generation of Atom chips.

Intel said that this is low enough for them to power a mobile handset and offer a battery life comparable to current smartphones.

However, the chipmaker also claimed that its new platform offers a greater level of performance than ARM-based designs for running applications, browsing the web, and video and graphics. Intel also touted compatibility with its other x86 chips as a major advantage for software developers.

Rod O'Shea, director of Intel's embedded group for EMEA, commented that smartphones are just "computers that happen to make phone calls", and that the technology shown today "hits the sweet spot for this environment".

Devices based on the platform are set to ship in the second half of 2010, according to Intel, but the firm declined to name any vendor aiming to market an Atom-based smartphone within this timeframe. However, Intel did demonstrate to the press a reference handset design running Moblin, alongside a larger 7in tablet system from OpenPeak.

The phone, bearing an Aavamobile badge, was shown running the Quake 3 game in one demonstration, and multi-tasking with a movie playing alongside a running 3D benchmark, and a live video feed open in adjacent windows in another. Previously codenamed Lincroft, the Atom Z6xx series divides into separate chips aimed at smartphones and tablets. The smartphone chips have clock speeds up to 1.5GHz and use low-power LPDDR memory, while those targeting tablet dev ices run at up to 1.9GHz and support standard DDR2.

Both have built-in PowerVR 3D graphics acceleration, plus hardware acceleration for video encoding and decoding. In fact, Intel claimed that Moorestown is the only smartphone platform capable of handling high-definition 1080p video.

Design features helping to save power include new ultra-low power idle states, Operating System Power Management (OSPM), and a technology called Intel Burst Performance, which is similar to the Turbo mode on Intel's Core chips.

OSPM uses an operating system-level utility to monitor which functional blocks of the processor are not being used, and powers these off completely.

Meanwhile, power consumption while idle is reduced to about 100 microwatts in the new SOi3 power state. More importantly, the Atom can come out of this in just a few milliseconds, according to Intel, so that it can 'wake up' to deal with an incoming call, for example.

Intel Burst Performance bumps up the performance of the chip so that it spends as little time as possible in maximum power mode, according to Tikky Thakkar, Intel Fellow at the firm's Ultra Mobility Group.

"It allows us to complete work very quickly and then go back to idle mode," he said, adding that it is like "having your cake and eating it. You can have high performance and reduce overall energy."

A companion chip, the MP20 Platform Controller Hub, lumps together numerous miscellaneous functions, dubbed 'jellybeans' by Intel, such as the system controller, camera support, audio engine and hardware cryptography acceleration. Taken together, these features mean that an Atom-based handset can have a battery life of over 10 days while idle, or four to five hours while showing video or browsing the web, according to Intel.

At the same time, the Atom processor outperforms existing phone chips, and Intel quoted SpecInt 2000 benchmarks that rate it between 1.5 to three times faster than ARM-based chips such as the Cortex A9 and A8 and Qualcomm's Scorpion processor.

Intel is thus looking to take some of ARM's share in the smartphone market, and experts believe that it does have an opportunity to muscle in at the high end. There's certainly an opportunity for Intel if it can offer better performance," said Ovum principal analyst Adam Leach.

However, Leach suggested that Intel "faces an uphill battle" because ARM has been in this market for so long, and its chips are optimised to maximise performance and power efficiency.

"Intel claims huge strides here, but we will have to see products in the market before we can judge," he said.

Meanwhile, Tim Coulling of research firm Canalys said that Intel's platform could benefit from the advantage of familiarity for developers. "What Intel always says is that it brings developers to the game, and enables developers familiar with the x86 architecture to bring their expertise to new platforms," he said.

Another issue is that many of the most common mobile platforms are coded for the ARM platform, while Intel can count only on Google's Android and its own Linux-based Moblin/Meego platform so far. But Coulling said that most users "don't really know or care what is on their phone", and speculated that Intel might try to take advantage of its 'Intel Inside' marketing that has proved a success with PCs and laptops.

"It will be interesting to see if they try and transfer that to other devices," he said.

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