Intel inside: This “reference design” running Google’s Android operating system is meant to help persuade manufacturers to build their handsets around Intel’s new mobile chips.
The era of the personal computer dawned thanks in no small part to the chip maker Intel. But the company has been only a spectator to the rise of smart phones and tablets in recent years. These mobile devices use chips based on designs licensed by the U.K. company ARM, which deliver the power efficiency the powerful, compact gadgets require.
Intel is about to fight back.
Last week, Technology Review tried out prototype smart phones and tablets equipped with Intel’s latest mobile chip, dubbed Medfield, and running the Android mobile operating system created by Google. “We expect products based on these to be announced in the first half of 2012,” says Stephen Smith, vice president of Intel’s architecture group.
Known as “reference designs,” the devices are sent out to inspire and instruct manufacturers interested in building products around Intel’s latest technology. “They can use as much or as little of the reference design as they like,” says Smith, who hinted that the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in January could bring news of gadgets in which Intel’s chips will appear.
Intel’s Medfield is the latest in its “Atom” line of mobile chips. So far none of them have seriously threatened the dominance of ARM-based chips in mobile devices, in part because they are more power-hungry. However, the new chip represents a significant technological step toward lower power consumption.
Previous Atom designs spread the work of a processor across two or three chips, a relatively power-intensive scheme that originated many years ago in Intel’s PC chips. But now Intel has finally combined the core functions of its processor designs into one chunk of silicon. “This is our first offering that’s truly a single chip,” says Smith. The all-in-one design, known as a system on-a-chip, is a standard feature of the ARM chips so dominant in smart phones today.
The phone prototype seen by Technology Review was similar in dimensions to the iPhone 4 but noticeably lighter, probably because the case was made with more plastic and less glass and metal. It was running the version of Google’s operating system shipping with most Android phones today, known as Gingerbread; a newer version, Ice Cream Sandwich, was released by Google only about a month ago.
The phone was powerful and pleasing to use, on a par with the latest iPhone and Android handsets. It could play Blu-Ray-quality video and stream it to a TV if desired; Web browsing was smooth and fast. Smith says Intel has built circuits into the Medfield chip specifically to speed up Android apps and Web browsing.