BARCELONA, MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS 2012 — Although Cupertino currently uses their own custom-baked ARM chips inside the iPhone and iPad, Intel’s gunning for their business. Caught with their pants down in the mobile market, Intel thinks they have finally gotten their silicon caught up to ARM when it comes to power management.
Their new mobile platform is called Medfield, and while it’s only for Android now, you should take Intel’s entry into the mobile market seriously: this could very well be the first-generation of the chip that won’t just power future iPhones and iPads, but run OS X on them as well. We got a hands-on.
Although Intel undeniably boned things up over the last decade by ignoring the importance of power management in their chips, allowing ARM to gain dominance in the mobile space, there`s no technical reason why Intel chips can’t match ARM when it comes to performance and power management. We’ve written an entire article on why Intel shouldn’t be counted out in the smartphone space, but what it comes down to is that Intel can make their chips smaller and faster than anyone else, with better yields. Intel’s now finally capitalizing upon their manufacturing muscle with the new Medfield platform, and the results are impressive indeed.
We had a chance to play around with Intel’s Medfield spec phone running Android Gingerbread 2.3 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. While the phone was just made to give manufacturers an idea of what Intel envisions devices powered by their chips to be capable of, Orange in the UK and France has decided to sell the phone starting in May.
Unlike most of the current batch of Android phones, Intel’s Medfield phone sat comfortable in the hand, and wasn’t overly large, with a 4-inch display just slightly bigger than the iPhone 3.7-inch screen. Inside, a 1.6GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of DDR2 RAm and Intel’s own integrated GPU, which was capable of extremely smooth 1080p video playback even using freely pannable 360 degree panorama videos.
The million dollar question about Medfield isn’t really about performance, it’s about power management. Intel says they’ve got power management licked with Medfield, and that in daily use, you can expect up to 8 hours of 3G talktime, just like the iPhone 4S.
Performance is also good. Intel’s implementation of Android uses an interpretation layer to translate apps on the fly to translate any aspects of an Android app that depend upon ARM processes into something compatible with their own x86 architecture; apps can also be optimized by developers to run well on Intel silicon. This interpretation layer works well: even on apps that aren’t optimized for Intel, we didn’t notice any performance problems, except for a brief pause when first loading the app (presumably to load the interpretation layer). Once the app was running, though, there seemed to be no slow-down.
What’s most interesting about Medfield, though, is that it can, in theory, run desktop operating systems. For example, Medfield-based tablets, Intel says, could some day dual boot between Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and Windows 8.
Think of the possibilities. If Apple embraced Intel silicon for future devices, your iPhone or iPad could run iOS when you’re out on the town, then link up wirelessly to a keyboard and monitor back home, booting up into OS X. Or Apple could merge iOS and OS X and ship one combined operating system that runs on both mobile devices and PCs.
Of course, that day is still a long way off, and there’s a lot of challenges ahead. Even though Intel now seems to have matched the performance and power management of the competition in the smartphone space, ARM still has one big advantage: anyone can make an ARM chip. That allows Apple to custom bake all of their own custom technology into every A5 chip. Intel’s biggest challenge in combating ARM is figuring out a way to make it easier for handset makers to custom design their own Intel silicon. If they can do that, they could have a real chance at turning the tide and making sure that future iOS devices have Intel inside.