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AH Primetime: Will Intel’s Presence In Mobile Devices Change Anytime Soon?

February 12, 2016 - Written By David Steele

Both Intel and Qualcomm have made news recently. Semiconductor manufacturer and designer Intel invests almost three times as much into semiconductor research as does the second highest investor into the technology, Qualcomm. The company is manufacturing Intel Atom processors on the 14nm process size, the same as Samsung’s new generation, high-tech chipsets. There are builds of Android available for Intel’s 64-bit chipsets, but unfortunately, they currently appear to only run in 32-bit mode (although a 64-bit flavor of Android was first demonstrated on a 64-bit Intel Atom chipset). Meanwhile, Qualcomm has started to lose traction in the mobile chipset market thanks to intense competition and appears to have the support of Google as it weighs up an investment into server processors, where Intel currently have over 99% of the market. However, whereas Qualcomm are just starting to muscle in on Intel’s traditional territory, Intel have been building mobile chipsets for years but have not made so much of a dent into smartphone chipsets. Why is this?

There are several reasons for Intel still only having a comparatively small market share: aside a number of ASUS smartphones (and ASUS has repeatedly said and demonstrated it is to start using ARM chips rather than being so reliant on Intel), there are comparatively few handsets proudly wearing the “Intel Inside” badge. One of the main reasons is how Qualcomm do not simply build a mobile processor, but they build a “System-on-Chip.” So what, exactly, is a “System-on-Chip,” or SoC, and why is this relevant? The SoC contains most of the necessary electronic components to drive a device. This means the application processor cores, the graphics processor unit (usually called the GPU) and the necessary modem and networking chips. Most SoCs also include power management chips too, and the SoC manufacturers provide the necessary driver software. This means that the device manufacturer needs to provide the necessary plumbing for components such as memory modules and radio antennas, but when they are connected to the SoC, everything works. This greatly simplifies the process of building a smartphone as the location, Wi-Fi, LTE modem, GPU and processor cores are all bundled into the one component. This saves power, as it is less lossy to have these components at one site, as well as simplifies the internal structure of the device. Qualcomm have based their chipset business on providing almost everything that a manufacturer requires and over the years, they have gotten very good at refining and evolving their products. It’s a business model that competitor chipset manufacturers have followed, such as MediaTek and to a point, Intel. However, there are good reasons why devices with a Qualcomm chipset inside tend to have better voice quality and data speeds: it’s because of the many thousands of engineer hours spent in refining the modem technology.

Intel’s mobile chipsets do include integrated graphics and the company has started providing integrated modem basebands, but it is some way behind Qualcomm along the development cycle. Application by application core, Intel’s chipsets are at least comparable to the ARM reference core designs and in many respects, Qualcomm’s custom cores, but their GPU setups have tended to be inferior and there is no on-die provision for a modem. This is one reason why Intel’s Atom chipsets have been popular with the less expensive tablet manufacturers: these devices will not require a modem and have greater internal space in order to provide additional circuitry for other components that are not included on the SoC.

On the subject of Intel’s GPU setups, unfortunately, these have tended to be noticeably inferior to many ARM chipset competitors. Modern SoCs do not just use their GPUs for playing games but also for working with imagery and photography: Qualcomm is making the camera integration a strong feature of their new generation Snapdragon chipsets. This is an area where Intel are not able to compete: Intel Atom chipsets don’t have the necessary hardware-backed encoding and decoding functionality of the high-end competition, which accelerates the recording of high-quality 4K video, capturing images and even recording image files in RAW format. This is not an image on a tablet, as despite manufacturers insisting on mounting a rear camera into a tablet, thankfully we do not tend to see many people using the rear camera to take images. Naturally, Intel are working to catch up but as cameras are a key part of smartphones, it does mean many manufacturers will skip Intel’s chipsets for their headline flagships in 2016.

What does this mean for Intel? We’ve already seen Intel experiencing ARM chipsets through a joint venture with Rockchip to produce the Intel Atom X3 (also known as the SoFIA chip). We know Intel is investing a huge amount into processor development and some of this is committed to the mobile market. We also know that Intel remains keen to enter the mobile market. MediaTek and Qualcomm are investing considerably less into semiconductors, but into a narrower portfolio range. Manufacturers are struggling to add value between a mid-range and a high-end device aside from a bigger, higher resolution display and a more powerful camera sensor, which favours the higher specification chipsets. Intel can hope to make progress in the mid-range smartphone market, but providing there are no issues with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 and MediaTek Helio X20 chipsets, may have to leave an attack on the flagship chipset market until at least next year.