Intel yesterday officially announced its Atom Z600 family of processors, along with the platform that supports it, known as Moorestown. It's a big and long-awaited move, one Intel hopes will help it compete in the high-end smartphone and tablet market. But although Moorestown is a step in the right direction, Intel still faces a lot of challenges in its competition with ARM-based processors for the smartphone market.
The Moorestown platform is based around the Atom Z600 family of processors, which Intel calls a "system-on-chip" (SoC). This processor (known as Lincroft) is a 45nm chip that combines a single CPU core with integrated 3D graphics, video encode and decode, memory, and display controllers. The platform also includes an I/O Controller Hub (MP20, known as Langwell) along with a power management chip called a Mixed Signal IC. Makers of smartphones or tablets would then have to add to it various wireless options, depending on the types and networks they want to support, along with a screen, antennas, memory, and so on.
In other words, Moorestown is more integrated than Intel's previous Atom-based platforms, but it still involves a number of chips to create a full system. Pretty much every smartphone relies on separate chips for applications processing and for wireless options, but many of today's chips are more integrated, and some are available with the memory as part of the package. In other words, this still isn't quite as integrated as some of the competitors, so it's more suited for larger smartphones and tablets than for smaller units. Intel hopes to address this with the next version, codenamed Medfield, which will integrate the controller hub onto the processor.
The Z600 family is available at a number of frequencies, ranging up to 1.5 GHz for high-end smartphones and 1.9 GHz for tablets and "Mobile Internet Devices." That high-end part in particular should be faster than the ARM-based designs we've seen to date--but even Intel's own positioning points out that it is destined for larger machines.
Obviously, we'll have to wait to see final device to really tell battery life and to see how it performs in the real world, but this should be a step in the right direction. However, since I saw the first demonstration of Moorestown a year ago, we've seen a number of more powerful ARM-based processors running at up to 1 GHz, including the Qualcomm Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra 2, and the Apple A4. In addition, a number of chip designers are working on ARM-based processors with two or more cores.
More important may be the question of software, particularly in the smartphone market. Intel has made a big deal of the fact that the Atom is an Intel Architecture (x86) processor, that there are huge numbers of applications designed to work on this architecture, and that indeed virtually every Internet site works on x86. But the vast majority of those applications are designed for Windows or Macintosh computers, not phones. Meanwhile, the phone vendors and the applications makers are all pretty used to writing for ARM-based phones, and this is something different.
Intel says the new platform is designed to work with its Moblin version of Linux, MeeGo OS http://blogs.pcmag.c... (an open source combination of Moblin and Nokia's Maemo), and Android. But of course, even applications written for Maemo and Android will need to be tested on the new platform.
Now these are indeed big challenges. But Intel has some unique advantages as well, including that huge base of x86 software compatibility, its advanced manufacturing technology, its relationships with many hardware makers, and of course, the performance of the parts.
I can easily imagine Atom Z600-based tablets running Android or even full Windows that could be smaller than today's tablet PCs but that run faster than the iPad or the other ARM-based tablets we've seen. I expect we will see at least a few smartphones, likely fairly large devices, aimed at the very high end of the market. Still, if the software issues are resolved and the battery life really is as good as Intel claims, such machines could be more powerful than today's smartphones. However, it seems unlikely any large smartphone maker will make a Moorestown-based the focus of their line this year.
Over the next few months, we should see devices based on the new platform. It's only then that we'll be able to judge how well it really works.
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