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Intel Unveils New Atom Chip For Smartphones

May 5, 2010

Intel unveiled a new version of its Atom chip, promising lower power consumption, cheaper costs and a smaller size to fit smartphones.

“Intel has delivered its first product that is opening the door … in the smartphone market segment,” Anand Chandrasekher, general manager of Intel’s Ultra Mobility Group, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor company, aims to step into the wireless market, replicating what it did for the netbook category it now dominates.

The company said the new platform targets a range of computing devices, such as high-end smartphones, tablets and other mobile handheld products.

However, analysts point to competition from Nvidia Corp., Marvell and Qualcomm Inc., which are already making headway with cheaper, low-power processors based on designed by ARM Holdings.

Intel merged its Moblin Linux operating system with Nokia’s Maemo earlier this year, which is a deal expected to pave the way for Intel chips to be placed into phones of the world’s largest cellphone maker.

Analysts previously said Intel’s chip-and-chipset platforms would be too power-hungry for portable consumer electronics and cellphones, when compared to platforms based on ARM’s architecture.

Intel said it has cut the amount of power the chip uses on standby by over 50 times.  Chandrasekher told Reuters last year that the power consumption is “very close” and almost matches that of rivals.

Battery life is one of the most important factors in the phone industry.  A senior Nokia executive said last year that ARM was “miles and miles” ahead of Intel on energy management.

The first devices to use the second generation Atom processors are expected to appear in the second half of 2010. 

The power consumption of the processing elements of the chips are separated into 19 power islands, and each one effectively handles a separate task like video decoding or audio playback.  The areas of silicon that are not in use turn off.

Pankaj Kedia, Intel’s head of handhelds, told BBC news that the parsimonious power consumption suggests that a smartphone built around the Atom chips would get 10 days of standby power.  The same full battery could offer 38 hours of audio playback, five hours of 720p vie or six hours of 3G calls.

“We’ve reduced the power so we are competitive in the smartphone space,” Kedia said. “We’re in the zone.”

Stuart Miles, founder of gadget news site Pocket Lint, told BBC News that “As we expect our portable devices to do more and more, whether it’s surfing the internet or playing games, power is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Tablet devices, with their bigger surface area aren’t that heavily affected, but it’d be nice not to have to panic for a power socket at the end of the day for your mobile.”

Martin Garner, director of mobile Internet research at CCS Insight, told BBC “This is about Intel’s third attempt to do a reference design for phones.”

“They have a not very happy history going back over eight years or so,” he said.

“But,” he added, “there’s a general feeling with smartphones that we’ve had a megapixel war, a megabits war and we’re about to get a megahertz war, which means things are moving in Intel’s direction.”

Garner said that although the Atom meant phone makers could shrink handsets they produce, it was only going to be smaller chips due in 2011 that would allow them to produce small enough phones.

He said the final hurdle was to convince phone makers to swap to using Intel chips when the vast majorities are already using ARM’s architecture.

According to Intel’s press release, the new technology supports Wi-Fi, 3G/HSPA and WiMax, as well as a range of operating systems such as Android, MeeGo and Moblin.

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