Stage Is Set For Intel-ARM Battle

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With Intel having over an 80 percent market share in processors the company is not accustomed to being the weak sister in any processor competition.

But when it comes to smartphones and tablet PCs the chip giant is in the unusual position of having to compete as an underdog with ARM and chip vendors, like Nvidia, that use ARM as a basis for their silicon on a chip products. Adding to Intel’s bruised ego is Microsoft’s decision to make the next version of Windows compatible with ARM’s processors giving that company an opportunity to enter the mainstream mobile computing category.

The third player in this contest is AMD. Like Intel its x86 processors also faces a challenge from ARM.

For its part Intel has started to rise to ARM’s challenge with the introduction of its Tri-Gate 3D transistor technology that is geared toward the tablet and smartphone markets. The Tri-Gate transistor uses a new architecture that greatly reduces power requirements, but still delivers a full-power performance and is designed for use in tablets and smartphones.

This situation has set up a potential head to head battle that could see ARM moving into Intel’s territory and vice versa, said several industry insiders.

“You can’t discount Intel,” said Dilip Bhatia, Lenovo’s VP, ThinkPad Marketing, “although it is a little too early to say how things will shake out.”

Bhatia also expressed excitement about the possibility that ARM could be coming to laptops.

“This could bring out new innovation into the notebook space,” he said.

Michael Holstein, ViewSonic’s VP business development, said Intel has the advantage when it comes to tablet PCs used in the enterprise market because most of those will run Windows.

“On the consumer side it’s a totally different perspective and Intel will be challenged,” Holstein said, “ARM is really in there and Intel has to cover a lot of ground to catch up.

ARM is also looking forward to the new situation. “The announcement that Windows will support SoC platforms, including those based on the ARM architecture, in its next version opens up new opportunities for the industry, and for customers around the world,” said Ian Drew, executive VP of marketing, ARM, “ARM is excited to be part of this effort which will come to define the next generation of computing.”

Dadi Perlmutter, Intel’s executive VP, said 3D transistors will help keep Intel competitive in its traditional processor markets, and allow it to better compete in the smartphone and tablet space where it has only a small presence.

AMD sees ARM facing several specific challenges if and when it attempts to enter the notebook space.

“The Windows OS is very big and it needs a processor with a lot of functionality and power,” said Raymond Dumbeck, AMD’s senior manager, client product marketing, adding it will be a great battle and eventually all the parties involved will benefit.

He added that ARM’s main advantage now is its low thermal emissions and power consumption, but as ARM scales up its processors to handle Windows its heat and power levels will also increase. Meanwhile, he said AMD, which now powers one tablet PC from Acer, already has the power and is working hard to get its heat and power usage down to even further.

Perlmutter said, he expects Atom processor with Tri- Gate 3D transistors to compete strongly with ARM’s mobile processor offerings, but he did not have any benchmark data to compare the two.

iSuppli analyst Matt Wilkins said the new processors capabilities give Intel an opportunity to establish itself in the tablet field. However, iSuppli also noted that ARM’s low-power consumption helps position the technology to eat into Intel’s core notebook business.

The new 22nm Intel processors, code named Ivy Bridge, will be in full production by the end of this year and in products by 2012. The 3D architecture will be used across Intel’s entire processor portfolio including in Atom processors. Intel will not use the current Planar technology on the 22nm level, company executives said.

Despite the name, the technology does not have anything to do directly with improving 3D video or gaming performance.

The first devices to receive the new technology will be thin clients and servers, followed at an unspecified date by consumer products. These will include PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablet PCs.

The technology has been under development for 10 years, said Mark Bohr, a senior fellow at Intel. The new technology will allow chips to continue to follow Moore’s Law, which states the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years. Bohr said this was becoming difficult using the older 32nm Planar transistor technology.

The new technology gets its name from the addition of a small fin that sits on top of the transistor that creates an additional electronic gate on the transistor. This forces the electric current to leave the transistor’s surface and go up and over and then back onto the surface. By doing so the transistors are 37 percent faster on low voltage systems and use 50 percent less power.

In addition, the architecture change will allow Intel to double the number of transistors that will fit on a single processor, compared to its current 32nm technology, said Bohr. 3D will also be scalable to Intel’s upcoming 14nm architecture, but no further information was revealed.

iSuppli also noted the fact that Intel is ready to mass produce the 22nm processors gives it an advantage over AMD and other competitors looking to get into the tablet space. The research firm believes Intel is at least two to three years ahead of the others.

AMD had no direct comment about the viability of Intel’s technology, but Leslie Sobon, VP product and platform marketing, said, “I’m not sure how it leads to a better end user experience and we want to focus on how our products directly impacts people’s experience.”


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