Intel shows off Atom processors for smartphones

Image caption,
Mobiles are becoming more like computers, said Intel

Intel has unveiled the chips it hopes will spearhead its push into smartphones.

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

Intel said the processors were built to use as little power as possible to ensure they were fit for mobiles.

However, industry experts point out that Intel had tried and failed several times to get its chips used in handsets.

Power down

Unveiling the second generation of Atom processors, Pankaj Kedia, Intel's head of handhelds, said they were "first and foremost" designed for smartphones and tablets.

To cut power consumption the processing elements of the chips are separated into 19 power islands, each one of which effectively handles a separate task such as video decoding or audio playback. Areas of silicon not in use are turned off.

The parsimonious power consumption suggests, he said, that a smartphone built around the Atom chips would get 10 days of standby power. For the same full battery it could offer 48 hours of audio playback, five hours of 720p video or six hours of 3G calls.

"We've reduced the power so we are competitive in the smartphone space," said Mr Kedia. "We're in the zone."

Stuart Miles, founder of gadget news site Pocket Lint, said: "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," he added.

The first devices to use the second generation of Atom processors were likely to be tablets, said Mr Kedia. Phones would take longer to appear because of the certification work that operators do before starting to sell them.

He confirmed that smartphones running Android would be among those using the Atom chips. Others using the MeeGo and Moblin Linux-based operating systems are also expected.

However Martin Garner, director of mobile internet research at CCS Insight, said: "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."

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

The final hurdle, he said, was to convince phone firms to swap to using Intel chips when the vast majority are currently based around designs from UK firm Arm.

"If you are switching from Texas Instruments to Intel, its quite a big thing to do," he said. "It's an expensive switch."

Mr Kedia was bullish on Intel's prospects and said its ability to offer a "full" web experience would help it win partners away from Arm which, he said, was only dominant "when phones were phones".

"Looking forward the phone is a check off item," he said. "The reason for me to buy a smartphone is the smart, not the phone."

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