June 07, 2011, 8:18 AM — Intel's upcoming Medfield chip will be an acid test of the chip maker's ability to enter the smartphone market and battle ARM, analysts said.
The first smartphones with Intel inside will reach store shelves early next year, according to the company. However, device makers may be wary of Intel's smartphone strategy and its competitiveness against rival ARM, whose processors go into most of the world's smartphones, according to analysts.
Intel's has faced multiple setbacks in its attempts to get its chips into smartphones. In January, Intel said Medfield smartphones would become available in the second half this year, but revised that at last week's Computex show in Taipei, saying the smartphones would instead ship early next year. A cancelled product from LG and an uneasy alliance with Nokia hurt Intel's earlier attempts to bring a smartphone with its chips to market.
Medfield combines an Atom CPU with a number of specialized cores for functions such as graphics acceleration. It will replace Moorestown, a chip Intel designed for smartphones although it was never used in any. LG showed a smartphone based on the chip, the GW990, but cancelled it before it reached production.
For device makers, unproven Intel chips inside phones may be difficult idea to swallow, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, who also attended Computex.
"While Intel is providing complete designs and support for a few select [companies], it is not clear if it is enough to be competitive. Just look at Nokia. Intel worked with them for a decade and they never introduced an Intel-based handset," McGregor said.
Nokia last year partnered with Intel to develop Meego OS, but in February abandoned that effort in order to establish a future smartphone strategy around Microsoft's Windows Phone OS. Intel CEO Paul Otellini called Nokia's switch a major blow, but later said that Nokia's withdrawal forced the chip maker to pursue other companies to adopt Medfield.
Intel's processor is more performance-oriented than ARM, but smartphone chips also have to be competitive on power efficiency and price, McGregor said. ARM processors are generally considered more power-efficient than Intel processors.
Intel's chips have traditionally been built for speed and not power efficiency, but the chip maker is being more serious about power consumption, said Doug Freedman, senior semiconductor analyst at financial analyst firm Gleacher and Co.
"We are finally starting to see Intel accept that change is required to win in the ultra-mobile space and they are redesigning the PC to look more handset-like," Freedman said.
ARM however has an advantage as most of today's smartphone software is written for ARM-based operating systems, Freedman said.