Hell Freezes Over, Intel Starts Making ARM Chips

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Intel has been rumored for years to start building ARM chips. Now they actually are doing so, and will begin fabrication of 64-bit ARM processors in 2014, but not for Apple.

According to Reuters, the x86-making fabrication giant will start making ARM chibs in its foundries starting next year. The news came from Intel partner Altera.

Intel, obviously, is feeling the heat from ARM. Despite Intel’s best efforts, the company has had no luck breaking ARM’s stranglehold on the mobile market, or successfully replacing ARM chips in mobile devices with their own low-power Atom chipsets.

However, it would be easy to make too much of this. As we’ve written before, Intel is not likely to drop x86 anytime soon. For one, ARM is woefully underpowered compared to x86, and now that Intel has gotten power-management issues out of the way with Haswell, the power-savings benefits are mostly gone anyway (and frankly, they were always overblown.)

The major reason Intel is probably looking to make ARM chips now is to fill capacity in their fabs. As we’ve written before, chips are made in giant semiconductor fabrication plants called fabs. Intel’s got the most advanced fabs in the business, producing chips that are using technology literally one to two years ahead of what other chip makers like Samsung, TSMC and Global Foundries can make.

These fabs, though, are expensive to set up, and expensive to keep running. If a fab isn’t producing every nanometer of silicon it can at every second of the day, it ends up costing the company money. So if Intel has fabs that aren’t outputting as many wafers as they could because there’s not enough x86 demand out there, it might make sense for Intel to accept lower revenue per wafer by making ARM chips instead.

In other words, this isn’t necessary a death knell of x86, or Intel, and certainly no indicator you’ll have a Mac with an ARM processor in it anytime soon.

  • Market_Mayhem

    It’s only going to put more pressure on Apple as Intel starts manufacturing hundreds of millions of ARM processors for Android devices. Apple has again decided to walk into stiff competition when it comes to its core hardware business. Every move Apple makes is becoming detrimental to its revenue growth. Intel will be forced to sell ARM chips at rock-bottom pricing just to get customers to fill capacity. Android vendors will be able to easily undercut Apple prices. If Apple was smart, they should try to grab early chip production from Intel to remain somewhat competitive.

  • Steven Quan

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t Samsung build Intel’s latest fab? If Samsung did in fact, build Intel’s most up to date fab, I seriously doubt Intel is 1 to 2 years ahead of Samsung, in fact, it’s probably the opposite.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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