If you've seen the film Apollo 13 more than 10 times, as I have, you probably remember the young NASA flight controller who manages to squeeze enough electricity out of the Apollo command module to safely get the astronauts home. And to think it was barely enough to power that coffee pot over there.

Well, if that flight controller is still around, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) might want to consider hiring him. Intel is battling it out with rival ARM Holdings (NASDAQ:ARMH) over the microprocessors that power all of our increasingly smaller gadgets. Those include cell phones, PDAs, handhelds, and netbooks. The holy grail of this hardware segment is getting more computing muscle for less electrical power. As any engineer will tell you, that's no easy feat.

So far, Intel and ARM have staked out their respective turf. Intel's microprocessor designed to run netbooks and larger handhelds, the Atom, delivers notebook-like performance while using two to four watts of electricity. ARM's latest offering, the A5, uses less than 100 milliwatts of active power, making it more suited for newer cell phones and handhelds. Arm's lineup also extends to higher-end offerings such as the A9, which consumes more power and whose performance is comparable to Intel's Atom processor. Clearly, both companies are trying to find a balance that safeguards existing market share while tapping into the large growth opportunity that exists across the spectrum of the small.

It's important to remember that unlike Intel, ARM does not mass-produce its own processor designs. Instead, the U.K.-based company licenses its designs as intellectual property to other electronics manufacturers. Companies such as Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA), and Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN) are all pushing their own ARM-based platforms. Mobile phone powerhouses LG Electronics and Samsung also license ARM technology. The key to success for licensees will be effectively differentiating them from competing products.

Currently, ARM-designed processors remain the dominant technology for cell phones, and management hopes that revved up versions of its high-end processors will compete at the netbook level with Intel's Atom. As of 2009, global cell phone subscriptions have hit 4.1 billion. Coupled with more than 200% growth for netbooks, this is a war well worth fighting for both companies. Keep a lookout for a processor that can successfully compete across the board -- an investment opportunity might not be far behind.

Fool contributor Hunter Pavela owns none of the stocks mentioned above. NVIDIA is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.