Here's Why Intel Can't Outperform Qualcomm In the Mobile Chip Segment

Intel's Cherry Trail chips are coming with a 14nm process. Will they be enough to establish Intel in the mobile chip industry?

May 29, 2014 at 2:00PM

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is the long-standing leader in the x86 and x64 high-performance computing space, but it is yet to grab a substantial share in the low-power mobile chip segment. Its upcoming Cherry Trail chips -- reportedly using a 14nm process -- may compete fiercely with Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) in terms of raw computing performance. But even so, there is reason to believe that Intel won't be able to establish itself in the Android-based mobile chip industry anytime soon. 

What's lacking?
It's worth noting that Intel manufactures some of the most advanced computing chips around the globe. Its x86 chips, for instance, are able to allocate priority levels to computing threads on a hardware level -- something that's lacking in ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) chips. Intel chips are also able to define counting loops on a hardware level, as opposed to the software-defined counting in ARM chips.

Features like these are an essential part of hardware-based logic programming and speed up the overall computing process, but they also require transistors to execute tasks. This is one of the reasons why Intel's x86-based processors, as opposed to ARM's latest, have almost three times as many transistors.

But these feature-driving transistors also require electricity to operate, amplifying the overall required power envelope of Intel's x86-based chips. ARM chips, on the other hand, offer no such hardware features and are able to churn similar computing performance while consuming less power.

This is one of the primary reasons why smartphone and tablet manufacturers currently prefer ARM-based Qualcomm chips to Intel's low-power Bay Trail. But that's not all.

Owing to the architectural differences, software developers are required to recode and recompile their ARM-based code for Intel processors to run. But since ARM-based chips are currently equipped in about 90% of the smartphones, there isn't much incentive for software developers to perform such tedious tasks -- another factor working against Intel. 

Losing its lead
In order to compete fiercely with ARM-based Qualcomm chips, Intel has announced the development of its upcoming 14nm low-voltage Cherry Trail chips -- an upgrade from the 22nm Bay Trail. As illustrated by Intel Broadwell's benchmarks, shrinking the die size -- by shifting from 22nm to 14nm process -- lowers the equivalent chip's power consumption by up to 30%.

But Qualcomm isn't sitting idle. The chipmaker -- currently using a 28nm fabrication process -- intends to mass-manufacture speedy chips using a 20nm process by the first half of 2015, the time of Cherry Trail's release. Qualcomm might consider moving to a 16nm FinFET process by 2016, with chips manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor

As we have seen in the case of NAND modules, chip-fabrication processes can't be shrunk endlessly. Close proximity of nodes leads to electromagnetic interference, which in turn, increases the cell degradation rate and reduces chip reliability. For this reason, Intel may find it hard to go below 14nm – possibly enabling ARM-based Qualcomm chips to catch up in terms of raw computing performance. 

This means that even if Intel is able to port similar power-saving gains into its mobile Cherry Trail processors, it may not be able to outperform Qualcomm's latest in terms of raw computing performance.

Ray of hope
The only way Intel can establish a foothold in the smartphone and tablet industry is by competing in the downmarket space at first. Allwinner and MediaTek are thriving in the segment due to the absence of reliable and reputed high-performance competitors. 

Intel can focus on capturing a substantial market share in the segment, thereby motivating software developers to compile their apps for its x86-based chips. Then it may consider climbing up the ranks to compete with the high-performance stalwarts like Qualcomm.

Until that happens, Intel may find it very difficult to dislodge Qualcomm from its pole position in the high-performance mobile chip segment. 

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Piyush Arora has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intel and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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