Nalini Muppala

Analysis, observations, perspectives on mobile space

Intel vs. ARM: Netbooks and Low Power

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The landscape of computing is undergoing a fundamental change. Mobile computing is gaining ground at the expense of traditional desktop-based computing. Computers are no longer merely productivity tools; they are increasingly being used for communication, networking, and entertainment on the go. To be sure, powerful desktops will still be around; but their use will be limited to developing content, R&D, technology, and businesses. For the average consumer, processing power to meet lifestyle computing needs is now available on mobile phones and other mobile Internet devices such as netbooks (or smartbooks, as Qualcomm and others prefer to market them).

In the now fading era of tethered computing, Intel, AMD, and others raced to produce ever more powerful processors. First, they pushed processor speed, then bundled multiple cores together. Attention was paid to raw computing power and not to the amount of electric power these processors consumed. All was well as long as these processors were running devices connected to AC power outlets or in case of laptops running for just a few hours. Mobile phones, netbooks, and embedded devices, on the other hand, are powered by a battery and need to run much longer – at least a full workday – between recharges. Intel’s portfolio of processors does not fit this low-power consumption bill. Processors powered by ARM cores excel at it.

Atom is the Pentium for non-PC platforms. Realizing that processors built for PCs will not cut it in the power-conscious markets, Intel designed a scaled-down architecture called Atom. But the first crop of processors from the Atom family is not as power efficient as the current offering from ARM. Most of the current Atom processors have total power dissipation (TPD) of over 2W. The golden rule of mobile computing is a TPD of 500mW under prevailing battery technology.

The road map for Atom promises power consumption levels comparable to ARM offerings. Both ARM and Intel plan to move to smaller transistors via smaller manufacturing processes to reduce current leakage and thus improve power efficiency. Intel is investing $7 billion across several facilities to migrate from 45nm to 32nm process technology. Intel earlier offered discrete graphics to provide powerful graphics processing alongside the main CPU. To cater to this, Intel is now pushing ahead its system-on-chip (SoC) effort by offering integrated graphics in PineView — the latest Atom offering. Intel is closing on ARM’s offerings and integrated approach.

The Cortex-A series of ARM processors are powerful enough to support a full version of Linux OS. For some time, prior offerings from ARM ran trimmed versions of Linux in embedded environment. Now, Cortex-A processors already power some of the top smartphones. With the new entrants in Cortex-A series (A9 MP, A5), ARM processors can now target netbooks and eventually laptops.

A majority of netbooks today are powered by Atom. ARM ecosystem partners intend to change this and are collaborating with Taiwanese computer manufacturers to build ARM-based netbooks. Nvidia Tegra, which powers the latest Microsoft Zune HD player, is built around the ARM11 core. Tegra aims to bridge the gap between a smartphone and a netbook. Qualcomm is taking on Intel with its own ARM-based Snapdragon processors. The experience gained in developing for 3G connected devices has given companies such as TI, Qualcomm, and Nvidia the confidence and know-how to take on Intel in the netbook market.

The current crop of netbooks does not make the cut for some; the next crop promises to be powerful enough to convince many more.

In tomorrow’s post, we will look at the software availability and OS ecosystems of these competing platforms.

A copy of this article appeared at Sramana Mitra on Strategy


Written by Nalini Kumar Muppala

December 1, 2009 at 7:43 am

Posted in ARM, Intel

Tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

One Response

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  1. […] I mentioned in the previous post, ARM cores are now capable of supporting a full Linux distribution. Beautiful things come about […]

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