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Low Power Chips Mount Challenge to Intel

From mainframes to minicomputers and then PCs, each new computing generation has displaced its predecessor by reaching a broader audience and costing far less. And each time, the dominant company in one generation loses control in the next.

That’s why the PC industry’s commanding chip maker, Intel, might do well to be alarmed by the

computer chips being designed by Qualcomm , a maker of chips for cellphones. An engineer at Qualcomm’s gleaming corporate campus here demonstrated a palm-sized circuit board capable of displaying high-definition video. What was striking about the demonstration was not the quality of the video images, which is now commonplace. Rather it was that the microprocessor chip, called Snapdragon, drives the display with less than half the power of a similar chip recently introduced by Intel . Qualcomm designers say it will also cost less.

As the PC shrinks in size, it is on a collision course with the multifunction cellphone. Many expect the resulting impact to transform both devices and all the companies that make them. The new smartphones, always-on portable Internet devices that are part cellphone, part computer, change the rules of the game in computing because computing speed — at which Intel excelled — is no longer the most important factor. For a cellphone relying on a small battery, how efficiently a chip uses power becomes more important.

The new mobile world represents a special challenge for Intel, which until four years ago ignored the issue of increasing power consumption in its flagship X86 chips, which have been the PC industry standard for almost three decades.

Other chip makers have not ignored power consumption. Just this month at Computex, a huge computer and consumer electronics trade show held each year in Taiwan, the Silicon Valley graphics chip maker Nvidia demonstrated a small mobile computer that worked five times as long on a battery as a similar portable machine powered by Intel’s most recent low-power chip.

Qualcomm and Nvidia share a chip design licensed from a relatively tiny British chip firm, ARM Holdings. ARM has had a big impact on the communications world. Its processors sell for substantially less than Intel’s more powerful X86 chips and are far more numerous: they are standard for the cellphone industry. Cellphones outsell PCs by about five to one.

(See Qualcomm's CEO discuss how cellphones have boosted the company's profit picture in the Video).

“This battle is being fought in ARM’s backyard, not Intel’s,” said Michael Rayfield, general manager of Nvidia’s mobile group.

In addition to Qualcomm and Nvidia, there are more than 200 licensees of the ARM processor design, including major chip makers like Marvell and Texas Instruments . Together, they supply the more than 1.1 billion cellphones, many of which use multiple ARM chips. The chips are also used in a growing array of special purpose consumer electronics like G.P.S. navigators and set-top TV boxes.

Dominating the large and growing cellphone market is only half the battle. Both the X86 and ARM camps are eagerly eyeing a new market known within the consumer electronics industry as M.I.D.’s, or mobile Internet devices. They are betting that this year represents the beginning of a boom in a new class of computing device — things like shrunken laptops called netbooks, personal G.P.S. navigators and handheld game systems, as well as an expanding array of idiosyncratic gadgets that connect wirelessly to the Internet for every conceivable purpose. For example, at Computex, one company displayed a handheld device intended solely for people looking to car-pool.

Outside the United States, the less expensive M.I.D. computers are expected to expand penetration of computers into new markets. In the United States and Europe, however, there is a debate about whether the new machine will remain a niche category.

Anand Chandrasekhar, a vice president and manager of Intel’s mobile platforms group, said he expects portable computers to be much like bicycles. Not only will people use different ones for different applications — like road bikes and mountain bikes — but they will also outgrow them.

“As a child, I had a bike for my size, and as I grew, my bike changed,” he said.

Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, is now well aware of the threat from ARM. It is focusing vast resources on the low-power microprocessor market and says it is catching up quickly in power efficiency with its ARM competitors. This month, the first netbooks using a new Intel chip, the Atom, began to be shipped. Intel says more than 30 products will use the Atom.

Even though Intel’s chip uses more power than those of its ARM competitors, its Atom represents a tenfold reduction in the power consumption of the X86 chip family that was used in several generations of desktop PCs. Intel’s engineers achieved the power savings in part by entirely rethinking the chip’s circuit design, as well as the way individual transistors work.

One addition to the new Atom chip is the so-called drowsy transistor, a circuit that can throttle the amount of power it consumes between each tick of the processor’s clock. When the chip is not computing, entire areas of the processor can go into a sleep state, using just enough power to remember the ones and zeros for the current process.

Intel executives said the company’s advantage in the looming war with its ARM competitors is the quality of the Web experience provided by its chips. “By definition, these devices have to run the Internet as it has been developed,” said Mr. Chandrasekhar of Intel. “That happens today on X86,” he said, adding that seamless access to the Internet “won’t happen on ARM.”

Intel’s executives say that the ARM makers are also hampered by the lack of a single standard, forcing computer software developers to make changes for each product they design.

ARM manufacturers respond that Intel is overstating the importance of X86 compatibility and that their chips will provide a Web experience that rivals Intel’s but allows significantly longer battery life. Indeed, Intel’s case that only X86 chips will offer a satisfying mobile Web experience was potentially undermined earlier this month when one of its closest allies, Apple, appeared to indicate that it had chosen to design its own version of the ARM microprocessor for future handheld consumer products.

Apple’s chief executive, Steven P. Jobs, said during an interview that the consumer electronics company had acquired a small Silicon Valley chip design company, PA Semi, to help design its next generation iPods and iPhones. Apple’s current iPhone is based on the ARM chip, and industry consensus is that the iPhone currently offers the best Web surfing experience in a handheld device.

Analysts and industry executives are divided on how much of a threat ARM will be to Intel. Allies like Dell are unlikely to desert the chip maker. “We’re impressed with their road map,” Michael Dell, chief executive of Dell , wrote in an e-mail message. He said it “gets interesting for smaller devices with Moorestown,” referring to the next generation of Intel’s low-power chips, planned for 2010. Dell, like Hewlett-Packard and other major PC makers, is bringing out its own mobile Internet device.

Other analysts see Moorestown as an indication of the challenge Intel faces, for the company will not be directly competitive with the ARM processors on power efficiency until then — and the ARM-allied companies insist they are not standing still.

“You’re still going to have a higher-power solution with Intel’s Atom that doesn’t have the same small footprint of the ARM chip,” said Jim McGregor, a research director at In-Stat, a semiconductor market research firm. “It won’t be a great solution for mobile devices, and ARM will.”

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