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Will Intel Break an ARM?

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It's never fun to watch the other kids playing when you're not invited to their games yourself. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) wants to get in on the smartphone and tablet computer fun with a new set of Atom processors and supporting chips.

In the press materials, Intel boasts of  a "50x reduction in idle power and 20x reduction in audio power" at the platform level, and the new Atom chips should squeeze out two to three times as much Web browsing and video time as the previous version of Intel's mobile chip. The first generation of Intel Atoms is great for netbooks, but the trade-off between more processing horsepower and quicker battery drainage in that product line doesn't lend itself to truly mobile computing platforms like smartphones or tablets.

If Intel's power and performance claims are anywhere near reality, the Atom now ranks right up there with Qualcomm's (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) SnapDragon, Marvell Technology Group's (Nasdaq: MRVL  ) Armada, NVIDIA's (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) Tegra, and the fourth-generation Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) OMAP chips. Initial information from Intel indicates the new Atom chip delivers blazing all-around performance, performing admirably in key usage cases like idle power drain and video decoding performance, while staying competitive in other battery consumption tests. That's certainly a start.

But the technology landscape is never easy to map out. Just because Intel has a great mobile hardware platform available now doesn't necessarily mean that handset makers and tablet designers will come a-knocking to build their next amazing products around the Atom. The ARM hardware platform sponsored by ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) , which is the underlying technology for all of the current leaders I listed above, is deeply embedded in the mobile computing experience, and every software environment that matters has been heavily optimized for that class of chips.

Intel is fighting from an unfamiliar underdog position here, and we can't call the new Atom a success until a few leading designers of consumer gadgets step forward with fresh Atom-based designs. And they had better blow your mind, lest the Atom sink without a trace.

Intel and others estimate that the market for mobile processors will dwarf the traditional CPU market where Intel is king -- if not now, then certainly by 2015. That's Intel's window to make a splash here and establish a toehold in the market, and the sooner the better. And no, I wouldn't count on help from Mac partner Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , because Apple now rolls its own ARM-based chips.

Will the new Atom become Intel's bread and butter in the next few years or is ARM's stranglehold on the market far too tight? I believe there's a place for Intel, but the comments box below is dying to hear what you think.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Apple and NVIDIA are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. The Fool has created a covered strangle position on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (12)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2010, at 2:51 PM, marv08 wrote:

    Once they are head to head power consumption wise, they have the next problem... All relevant mobile operating systems are ARM-only, only full desktop-class OSs support Intel's architecture. These OSs (Windows 7, Mac OS X) are not designed for touchscreen systems at all. Windows 7 only added some touch support as an afterthought (the reason why HP buried the Slate), and Apple was clever enough to see that it makes no sense and subsequently put the iPhone OS on the iPad right away.

    If Intel wants success in this segment, they have to do their own platform for now. Looking at the current state of Moblin (an Intel sponsored Open Source platform for Atom devices), ARM and the competition can feel safe. Every single OS out there is more advanced.

  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2010, at 4:42 PM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    Intel's biggest hope might be Android, which does run on x86 and has Intel on the Open Handset Alliance steering committee. Then again, that's optimized for aRM too. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens next.


  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2010, at 6:48 PM, 77h wrote:

    Meego the joint development open source project between Nokia and Intel will be an amazing piece of software which will run on x86 (intel) and ARM based devices. i currently use a maemo device from Nokia which is amazing software wise.

    Meego = Moblin + Maemo

  • Report this Comment On May 06, 2010, at 9:43 AM, churlish wrote:

    There is still the issue that the current platform and handset suppliers have multiple chip providers to choose from if they use ARM based CPUs, but there is only one x86 supplier if they choose ATOM. If you were building handsets/Smartphones and:

    a) all your current software tools and experience were based on ARM

    b) you had competition between your chip providers to bring pressure on price/features/performance

    c) a new non-compatible platform entered the market supplied by a single supplier

    What would your choice be?

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