Intel’s Smartphone Designers Step Up, Finally Score a Hit

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It was becoming a familiar scene: Intel CEO Paul Otellini showed off a prototype smartphone running an Atom processor and said the company was in discussions with handset makers, and then nothing ever came of it.

With CES 2012, he finally had a vendor. Actually, he had two: Motorola and Lenovo. Lenovo is not known to be a player in the smartphone business, but it has soared to the number-two position in PC sales worldwide behind HP, so don’t discount it or its ability to leverage its corporate sales.

Lenovo K800It certainly was about time. Intel has been talking about getting into smartphones since 2009 but it hasn’t had much to show for it. The market has remained firmly in the grip of ARM Holdings, the U.K. developer that designs and sells instruction sets, but doesn’t do actual manufacturing.

ARM is the architecture of choice for a fairly wide array of semiconductor vendors; Nvidia, Marvell, Samsung, Texas Instruments, and Qualcomm all use an ARM core plus their own added IP for differentiation.

Coming from the PC world, Intel had to whittle the x86 architecture down to the super low power consumption ARM processors were know for, and it took a while. The first attempt at a smartphone chip, an Atom family codenamed “Moorestown,” went nowhere.

With the new Medfield, Intel really got its act together. The Moorestown platform was a 45nm chip Atom, five-chip solution, while Menlow is an integrated 32nm system-on-a-chip (SoC) that requires just three chips. Obviously the power savings was enough to impress Motorola and Lenovo, and that could be the start of things, said Will Strauss, principal analyst with Forward Concepts, who follows the mobile computing market.

Intel Atom Inside“I think it will break the ice. Some people are still skeptical, including me,” he said. “They will want to see how well does it really perform and we won’t know until we get our hands on phones. I’m sure that Intel’s camped on all [the handset OEMs] doorsteps. If Intel did well [with this design], they will get more sales.”

Medfield will also be used in tablets as well. An Intel spokesperson said Intel is in discussions with several OEMs and that Lenovo showed Medfield-powered tablets running both Android 4.0, a.k.a. “Ice Cream Sandwich” and Android 3.0, a.k.a. “Honeycomb,” in the Intel and Lenovo booths at CES.

Intel believes Medfield will be competitive enough for it to start taking some design wins away from ARM. “The combined investments we were making in SOC, platform, software, process and ecosystem will give us a sustained competitive advantage over the long term,” said an Intel spokesperson.

Strauss isn’t sure yet. “They keep talking a good game. They have the money, they have the talent. It’s just the question of is x86 the right platform? That’s yet to be proven,” he said.

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