Ultra-mobile devices: Atom to beat ARM... just, says analyst
Intel will not own SCC, UMPC, MID biz
Can ARM mount a serious challenge for Intel's Atom processor family? Market watcher ABI Research thinks so - it has forecast that almost half of all UMPCs, SCCs and MIDs will be ARM-based come 2013.
It also reckons that for every Windows device that's sold, two more Linux machines will be snapped up, though ABI admitted that Linux laptops are currently suffering a higher return-rate than Windows ones.
But it's the ARM forecast that's more interesting. Intel's Atom line currently forms two strands: one for Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) called 'Silverthorne', and another for Small, Cheap Computers (SCCs) and Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) called 'Diamondville'. The chip giant's pitch is that both will run all the x86-based software out there - operating systems and apps - without modification.
That, it believes, puts it at an advantage over ARM, which licenses its technology out to multiple vendors, many of whom adjust their offerings to differentiate them. Different versions of the ARM core don't help matters, the upshot of which is that an app coded and compiled for one chip won't necessarily run straight away on another. The many operating system and user-interface variants only muddy the waters even more.
Maybe, but then plenty of major vendors, particular in the mobile phone arena, have spent years working with ARM technology and cope very well with this situation, thank you. Intel believes the fact that developing for one device and running the resulting app out of the box on many more is way cheaper than developing dozens of versions will win out.
You'd think so, but ABI's forecast suggests not. Last month, the company claimed that in 2013, 68 per cent of all these devices will be MIDs - handheld tablets for web browsing. This is crucial for ARM because these are products more likely to evolve out of today's smartphones than from tablet PCs or UMPCs.
Take an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, a Samsung Omnia or Tocco, a Nokia 5800 XpressMusic or an LG Secret and scale it up in size a little, and you have what Intel might well call an MID. 'Might call' because none of these machines use x86 processors but are ARM-based devices.
Indeed, many people would agree they're already MIDs in all but name. With sales undoubtedly as strong, if not much stronger than netbooks, MIDs are thus already outselling SCCs today, let alone on 2013.
Still, Intel has a point. It defines an MID as a device capable of running the full internet, and smartphones can't. Even the iPhone can't, for all its Safari browser is one of the best attempts at presenting desktop-centric web pages on a small screen. It can't because it has no Flash support.
Plenty of other devices do, through Adobe's ARM 9-oriented Flash Lite, but it remains the case that these need to be tailored to specific device/OS/browser combos which is why you can't just download it to your phone and head straight over to YouTube.
That does give Intel an advantage, which is probably why ABI says Atom will have more than half of the combined MID/UMPC/SCC market in 2013, though it's probably not counting the successors to today's ARM-based smartphones as MIDs.
"Cellular voice-enabled MIDs will be able to replace phones entirely - they will become the new high-end smartphones," says ABI principal analyst Philip Solis. We'd put it the other way round: new high-end smartphones will become MIDs.
Not that ARM need rely on MIDs - we hear there are a fair few ARM-based netbooks in the pipeline that are claimed to deliver rather better battery life than Intel or VIA fitted machines have been able to. Know more? Fill us in
The current OMAP2-based Nokia Tablet hardware is more than powerful enough for Web2.0 in theory, it's the unoptimised browsers that are the problem.
Atom performance in general is pretty abysmal, so with properly optimised software the ARM hardware is more than a match. Plus, the ARM devices will run for many hours longer than Intel on a single charge...
Nokia MID series
Don't forget the N770, N800 & N810 series of MID's from Nokia. These do run Flash, have a solid AJAX browser (gecko engine) and high enough resolution screen (800x480) to give a decent web surfing experience.
I'm sure that part of the problem is OS/browser optimisation, however the ARM chip does need more processing power for living with Web 2.0. That is the open door Intel may be able to walk through. Can ARM respond in time?
Intel FUD - and you bought it hook, line & sinker
Nokia Internet Tablets are ARM based, run Linux, are only slightly larger than a typical smartphone yet they provide the "full internet" experience including Flash 9 in either Opera, WebKit or Firefox browsers.
Intel's point is wafer thin and if you were to consider the Nokia Tablet range then Intel is 100% incorrect and guilty of outright FUD - lies, infact.
Nokia have been shipping the full internet experience on ARM in a MID form factor since November 2005 - the bullsh1t being spread by Intel smacks of desperation as the end user isn't going to give a stuff whether their device is running ARM or x86, all they'll care about is the battery lifetime which is where Intel sucks big-time and they know it. Application availability is not going to be an issue with most Linux apps cross-compiling quite happily.
And have you ever wondered why Intel are spending so much time and effort working on fast-boot support in Linux? It's because Atom CPUs need to power down in order to achieve acceptable battery lifetime and nobody is willing to wait 1-2 minutes for their device to boot, so a five-second boot time for Linux becomes absolutely essential if Atom is to stand a chance in a mobile environment. Contrast that with an ARM device that never has to switch off... maybe it will be rebooted once a month, if that. I know which I would prefer so stop buying into the Intel hype/bullsh1t!
Given the fact that you've got x86, 486, 586, 686, etc. flavours of the Intel line, recompilation for best performance already exists with that architecture. Why shouldn't the ARM line be the same?
ARM's cleaner design beats Intel's smaller manufacuring process
Intel CPU's have a fast risc core and huge number of transistors to convert X86 instructrutions into risc instructions. ARM (and MIPS) are risc cores, so the do not need to waste transistors and power converting a legacy instruction set into something that can be decoded efficiently.
Intel and Via CPU's use power to get data to and from the north bridge. The north bridge uses power to get data to and from the memory. ARM (and MIPS) CPU's have a memory controller built in like AMD CPU's, so it only takes half the power to get data from memory to the CPU compared to an Intel or Via chipset.
These two advantages more than make up for the better manufacturing processes that Intel uses for Atoms. ARM (and MIPS) give better performance per watt than X86. Also you do not need to pay for the massively over-priced Inhell Inside sticker, so you get better performance per £ too.
The other advantage of ARM (and MIPS) is that closed source software vendors have difficulty supplying multiple variants of their binaries. Stick to open source applications and you can compile them whenever you change architectures (If you are too computer-illiterate to compile programs yourself, Gentoo automates the process for you). You will never have to wait two years and pay an buy the software again like you did when you went from x86 to AMD64.
ARM and MIPS have good economies of scale for devices. If PHB's understood the value of ARM and MIPS, we would see economies of scale for laptops (laptop: a notebook that will not catch fire if you cover the cooling vents by using it on your lap.)