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The ARM onslaught continues, is Intel’s Silvermont enough to compete?

The ARM-Intel battle is heating up now that Cortex A-12 and Silvermont are officially announced, but who’s going to reign as mobile supreme in the end?

So far, Intel has been targeting emerging markets, but as the chip maker moves forward there are of course aspirations to enter more competitive markets.  However, as it turns out, markets like the U.S., Europe and Asia are littered with ARM chips.  One of Intel’s latest moves to chip away at the ARM dominance was the announcement of Silvermont, a 22nm Atom line that boasts ‘5x lower power consumption, next-gen microarchitecture, and 3x higher performance’ compared to prior-gen Atoms.

The Cambridge-based ARM Holdings weren’t sitting still, as expected, and recently announced the Cortex A-12.  With a reported 40 percent increase in performance over the A-9, the new ‘mid-range’ Cortex is forecasted to sell somewhere in the range of 580 million products by 2015.



With the global mobile consumption rate expected to rise to nearly one smartphone per person in the next several years, ARM looks like it is in firm control of all segments.  From low-end to high-end, there’s no escaping ARM’s grasp.  Therefore, one can only wonder what Intel has in mind to shift manufacturer interests away from using ARM-based processors.  Even if we know the strategies, it’s still quite difficult for us to compare ARM and Intel in a head to head scenario as they use two different business models.

The ARM wolf pack is strong, and with Qualcomm as the alpha male, it’s hard to imagine the Intel ogre being able to take out every single wolf with a single swing of the club.  Intel plans on striking in Q4 with Silvermont, whereas the A-12 won’t land for another year or so.  This leaves some room for Intel to play around, and with the recent Samsung partnership basically already in the book, Intel is proving that it can outmaneuver ARM even if it’s not leading the race.

In all likelihood, emerging markets will prefer mobile products with cheap ARM chips from the likes of MediaTek and Rockchip, but in established markets Intel has to compete with Qualcomm who will likely stick with their own Krait tech in the foreseeable future.

As for performance, most current ‘mid-range’ ARM products are sufficient for completing just about every tasks thrown at it—be it just checking an email or playing a high-def game.  In terms of battery life, it appears as though ARM-based products are also leading the way.  There’s no doubt that Intel can deliver on performance, but can it deliver on promises of vastly improved battery life and performance/watt?  Intel has time to play around, but the longer it takes to produce a compelling product, the stronger the ARM pack becomes.

When it’s all said and done, will Intel deliver performance that’s also affordable? Or will manufacturers have to continue to rely on extremely cheap ARM components?  2014 is set to be an interesting year in mobility, and a year that we may see Intel arrive to the race and seriously compete.

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