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ARM wrestles Intel for netbook crown

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UK chip-design house ARM has announced the development of a pair of dual-core processors intended to go head-to-head with Intel's Atom line in the battle for the hearts and minds of netboook manufacturers.

According to Wednesday's announcement, the two Cortex-A9 MPCore implementations are designed for silicon pumped up to clock rates in excess of 2GHz.

Both implementations are speed-optimized using hard macro IP, meaning that they specify not only the logic elements themselves but also the physical pathways among them, and that they are designed for a specific manufacturing technology.

In this case, that technology is TSMC's 40nm-G (general purpose, as opposed to LP: low power) process, which went into volume production last November.

According to ARM, when compared to Intel's Atom line the new implementation has a lot going for it. "It's head and shoulders above anything Intel can deliver today," ARM VP of marketing Eric Schorn told PC Pro, claiming that it offers five times the performance in the same power envelope as an Atom.

Nicer than Intel

Schorn also said that chips manufactured using the new design will be one-third the size of an Atom processor, saving manufacturing costs, and that ARM - unlike Intel - won't put restrictions such as screen size on hardware the new implementation finds its way into. "We're allowing our diverse partnerships to go and innovate," he said.

Intel has one arrow in its quiver that ARM doesn't: Windows. Although Linux enjoyed solid acceptance in the netbook market when those sub-subnotebooks first appeared, that love has been withdrawn due to Microsoft marketing and users' reluctance to learn a new OS.

Windows, however, is no longer the invincible 800-pound gorilla that it once was. Google's Android is making mobile conquests, and that company's open source Chrome OS - backed by Mountain View's exceptionally deep pockets - will surely chip away at Windows when it makes its appearance next year.

As Google has blogged, "Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year."

But the core issue in the ARM-Intel dust-up is a long-term one. As today's announcement shows, ARM intends to move out of handhelds and onto your lap. But as Intel CEO Paul Otellini told investors earlier this year, his company is aiming squarely at handhelds.

Referring to small, consumer-focused devices - traditionally ARM-land - Otellini said: "That's what we're aiming at. This is where we think the growth opportunity is for us."

When ARM and Intel meet head-on, don't assume that the bigger company will squash the smaller. ®

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