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Intel ships high-powered C++ compiler for native Android apps

Drop-in replacement for GCC promises better performance

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Intel has released the Intel C++ Compiler v13.0 for Android OS, its first attempt at delivering an optimizing C/C++ compiler designed specifically for Google's mobile platform.

The release is notable for a number of reasons. First, the overwhelming majority of Android devices are currently built around chips based on the ARM architecture. Intel's compilers can only output code for its own chips, including its Atom line of mobile processors.

Second, the majority of Android app development is done not in C++ but in Java. Specifically, developers use Oracle's Java SDK to compile their code and then run it through a further tool that converts it into Android's unique Dalvik binary format, which can be executed by virtual machines running on a variety of chips.

Still other developers build Android apps using HTML5 and related technologies, which typically don't require a compiler at all.

Intel says it's not trying to lure developers away from any of these methods. Instead, its new C++ Compiler for Android is designed for apps that take advantage of the Android Native Development Kit (NDK), which is typically used to develop components for performance-intensive apps, such as games.

The current version of the Android NDK uses version 4.6 of the open source Gnu Compiler Collection (GCC) toolchain by default. But Intel's compilers include lots of proprietary optimizations for its own chips, and can often output executable code that performs better than that produced by third-party compilers such as GCC.

According to Intel's FAQ, its C++ Compiler for Android provides drop-in source code compatibility with Gnu C++, but it outputs more efficient code that executes faster and helps keep devices cool and power consumption low.

The new compiler can't be used to generate code that runs on Windows, OS X, desktop Linux, or any other operating system. It can only produce code for Android – and specifically, Android version 4.0 and up (releases codenamed "Ice Cream Sandwich" and "Jelly Bean").

You can't use the compiler on just any development machine, either. Neither Windows nor OS X is supported; the tools are only certified for use with Ubuntu 10.04 or 11.04 (the latter version being nearly two and a half years old). Versions for other platforms may be forthcoming – Intel says "stay tuned."

In an unusual move, Intel is making this first version of its Android compiler available as a free download for a limited time. By comparison, Intel C++ Composer XE 2013, Chipzilla's C++ tools collection for desktop operating systems, retails for $699 (£450) for Windows, Linux, or OS X. The company isn't saying how long the tools will be available for no charge, or what will happen after that.

To get the compiler, head on over to Intel's registraiton site where you will be asked to submit your email address to receive a personalized download link. ®   

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