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Intel Takes on ARM for Mobile Processor Market

Intel is virtually synonymous with processor technology. Intel has been the leading developer of the chips that drive servers, desktops, notebooks, and even net books, but it is conspicuously absent from the rapidly growing smartphone--and now tablet--market.

Intel has a dominant stake in the processor market--with about 70 percent, and it has only one real competitor in AMD. Multiple core processors and server virtualization, combined with a trend toward mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets, however, threaten the future of Intel's dominance.

In its core markets, AMD continues to pose a challenge. Intel has more innovative and capable architecture under the hood--making its processors faster and more powerful core for core, but AMD delivers at significantly lower cost. Intel's technical superiority hasn't stopped HP--the number one computer manufacturer in the world--from embracing AMD as well in order to deliver cheaper alternatives for cost-conscious customers.

Still, AMD is not as big a threat to Intel as the growing trend away from Intel's core markets into mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets--arenas where Intel has little presence. Intel sees the writing on the wall, though, and is working aggressively to engineer x86-architecture processors to compete with ARM-based chips that currently dominate the mobile landscape.

Apple's iPhone 3GS is powered by a Samsung ARM Cortex-A8 processor. The Apple iPad tablet runs on an Apple proprietary SoC (system on a chip) dubbed the A4, which has an ARM Cortex-A9 as its heart and soul. Competing smartphones like the Motorola Droid, the Nexus One, and the new HTC Incredible all run on ARM processors.

AT CES 2010 earlier this year, Intel introduced its new Moorestown processor architecture--providing an SoC comprised of an Intel Atom processor core, combined with graphics processing, video, and memory controller functions. Moorestown is capable of delivering netbook-like capabilities on smaller mobile platforms with power consumption on par with its ARM rivals.

Now, Intel has unveiled a new Moorestown processor built on an Atom Z6 series core. Intel claims that the new processor platform is capable of 10 days of standby power, up to two days of audio playback time, and four to five hours of video playback. Intel also promises better performance and richer graphics--including support for full 1080p video playback and 720p HD video recording.

There is no denying that Intel is a leading innovator in processor technology. However, Intel is coming late to the mobile platform party, and--as HP may have realized--the mobile platform is not necessarily conducive with the traditional Wintel architectures.

Intel finds itself as the "AMD" of mobile processors--and faces a long road to carve out its place in the mobile platform market.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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