In marriage of convenience, Intel taps ARM graphics in new x86 smartphone chip

Intel has turned to competitor ARM to use Mali graphics in its new Atom X3 chip for low-cost smartphones

Intel Atom X3 chip

Intel Atom X3 chip

Intel is famously self-reliant in developing new chip technologies in-house, but it has picked up a bit of help from rival ARM with its latest x86 Atom X3 smartphone chip.

ARM's Mali graphics technology is being used in multiple configurations of Atom X3, which is targeted at low-end smartphones. The chip, announced at Mobile World Congress, is code-named Sofia and will go into Windows and Android mobile devices priced from under $75 to $249.

Intel and ARM have offered competing computing architectures since the 1990s, but as the market for mobile devices has eclipsed the PC arena dominated by Intel, ARM's lower-power microprocessor designs have emerged as the winner in that space. Intel is trying to establish a larger presence in smartphones and tablets, and has done well in the latter; however, its chips are in just a handful of smartphones.

An Intel executive minimized the significance of its use of the ARM technology in the X3, indicating that the hookup will not be a long-term relationship. The license for Mali graphics technology carried over from Intel's acquisition of Infineon Wireless in 2011, and though the technology may be old, the basic graphics suffice for low-cost smartphones, said Aicha Evans, vice president and general manager of Intel's Communication and Devices Group. Using ARM's graphics cores doesn't mean Intel is increasing its cooperation with the company, Evans said.

Other Atom chips use internally developed Intel graphics or PowerVR cores licensed from Imagination.

Intel has used ARM technology in previous products, but has also quickly flushed it away. It uses ARM processors in XMM baseband processors, but wants to move over to the x86 architecture by the end of this year. Intel also made ARM-based XScale processors for networking equipment and handheld devices, but ultimately sold that business to Marvell in 2006.

Intel had to bring the Atom X3 chip to market quickly to remain competitive, and the Mali graphics played a role in making that happen, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

ARM's graphics cores were ready, cheap and easy to implement, and Intel didn't have to spend time to develop new low-power graphics circuitry.

"If they have more time, they will go back to using PowerVR and Intel graphics," Brookwood said.

Intel is also partnering with Chinese chip maker Rockchip to design some X3 chips. Rockchip primarily sells ARM-based chips for low-cost mobile devices, and their involvement could've swayed Intel to use ARM graphics, Brookwood said.

Mali graphics are used on many low-end smartphones, and applications already work with it. Intel graphics are not on low-end phones, and developers would have had to rewrite and recompile applications like games, Brookwood said.

The first Atom X3 chips with 3G will be in devices in the first half this year. An LTE version of the chip will ship in the second half to device makers.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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