We all know and remember the AMD vs. Intel battle of the past, but now Intel’s back to take on another three letter word – ARM. Today ushers in a new era of CPU wars, but this time we’re looking at entry into a market that doesn’t reside in our homes and offices, but directly in the cozy spaces of our pockets and purses.
The contenders: ARM vs Intel
In one corner of the mobile arena we have the first big bang in the mobile/smart phone market: Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone uses an ARM processor. The current version uses your cell network’s 3G network (if available) or wifi and is capable of surfing the internet. This device functions as a phone as well as a computer. In the other corner we have Intel, which recently announced and showed off the first prototype of their Moorestown Mobile Internet Device (MID). This device will also be able to surf the internet, and function as a computer:
However, Intel slammed the iPhone’s ARM CPU by stating that the iPhone is not capable of the ‘full internet’, whereas Moorestown is. As today’s internet sites grow in size and technology, browser plug-ins like flash and silverlight are required to view certain web content, like embedded videos. The iPhone does not currently have these plug-ins, and so does not have the full internet experience. Intel claims that underlying reason lies in the fact that the iPhone uses an ARM processor – it simply can’t load content fast enough, nor can it handle the load of running the plug-ins smoothly. Intel claims that if in the near future ARM ever does get to the point where it could process the ‘full internet’, that “performance will be so poor.”
The difference between these two CPUs can be largely explained by the process that each uses to develop their chips. ARM’s great advantage is that they have an aggressive manufacturing process that allows them to build many different types of chips – they can tailor their chips to each of their client’s specific needs. Intel, on the other hand, builds a single chip architecture that its clients will have to adopt and adapt to – client devices will have to be built around the chip instead of the chip being built with the needs of the system. Intel’s advantage, though, comes in the form of leading edge performance. So while the ARM processor used in the iPhone has been tailored specifically for use in the iPhone, Intel’s Moorestown processor will be a standardized chip that many vendors would use.
Earlier this year in January, the EETimes published an article explaining that it believed ARM was the current winner in the mobile sector. This was mainly due to the key differences between the two platforms – ARM custom tailors, while Intel has better raw performance. The article takes the stance that if ARM can continue to employ custom architectures that overcome the performance benefits of Intel’s chip, that ARM will remain the winner.
Mobile devices require that special mobile processors be made while keeping several key features in mind: processor efficiency (for battery life), hardware inputs and outputs (keypads, touchscreens), mobile communications (wifi, 3G, 2G), video processing, etc… All of these features usually need to be shoved onto one chip that can fit inside a small form-factor device. Moorestown’s downside a year ago was that it didn’t employ any sort of built in mobile communications piece, placing ARM as a clear winner for the mobile market. ARM’s processors could be created differently for each client, basically adding only the pieces that were needed (like specific mobile communications technologies), and leaving out any extraneous features – saving battery life, space, money, and performance.
With Moorestown Intel now believes that they’ve crossed this gap and have created a chip that is somuch more performant and efficient that it outweighs the benefits of using a custom tailored ARM CPU. If this is true we’re all in for a surprise – desktop internet browsing speed and capability in a small form-factor handheld device.
What I would like to see
It would be great to see a REAL iPhone contender. For Apple to have created such a great device so far ahead of all these other companies is a real accomplishment. By the time Intel is ready with their Moorestown platform, we should see multiple vendors producing some speedy handheld devices.
If Moorestown takes off the way Intel hopes it does, where will Apple stand? Will it ditch its custom ARM architecture for a speedier Moorestown platform? Whatever happens, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Apple will continue to have a market leading device.
On the iPhone: perhaps in the future the ‘i’ will stand for Intel. Think about it.
Update: This article linked to by TomsHardware.com: Intel “Medfield” Atom Processors Expected In 2010