It’s finally here: an Android-powered smartphone running on an Intel chip. That’s big news, right? Sure it is, but the devil is in the details. The phone in question is the RAZR i — the “i”, if you couldn’t guess, is for “Intel”, and it’s running one of Intel’s Medfield-based Atom processors.
What’s so special about Intel?
Intel is world’s largest and highest valued semiconductor chip maker, based on revenue1, but they’ve been somewhat slow getting into the mobile market (and by that I mean smartphones and tablets). The primary reason for that is due to their architecture. When most people think “Intel” they think x86 and x64 processors. Androids run on ARM chips. What’s the difference? Quite a bit.
Architecture similarities and differences
To begin with, we can compare the Medfield processor to the ARM Cortex A-9 which runs many of today’s Androids. They’re both 32nm chips, depending on the implementation of the ARM. Generally speaking, smaller chips draw less power, run cooler, and are less expensive to make (because they require less raw materials to make). Some of the ARM processors in today’s smartphones and tablets are built at 45nm or larger, but the new ones like the Samsung Galaxy S III are 32nm.
Processors run code, but in this case they use different instruction sets. The Medfield, like other ATOM chips, is an x86 processor. This means it runs 32bit, CISC-style instructions. ARM processors run 32bit, RISC-style instructions. Normally this would be a problem when it comes to running apps, but Android addresses that very well. Every app that you’ll find in the Play Store runs in a virtual machine (we’ll talk more about that in our next episode of Android Power User), so all another chip vendor has to do is translate the operating system to run on its architecture, and all the existing apps run just fine.
Looking at comments on other news articles covering this topic, that’s a major point of confusion, so let me be perfectly clear: app developers will NOT have to re-write or even re-compile their apps to work on Intel chips. Current apps will “just work”. I can’t make it any more simple than that.
Medfield is spec’d to max out at 2GHz. Like most other processors, it doesn’t run with the throttle full-open, instead it adjusts to the demands of the system. This uses less power and puts off less heat, but also means there is a momentary “hesitation” while the chip ramps up — just like in your car when you hit the gas and it takes a few seconds to get up to speed.
The press release for the RAZR i is a bit ambiguous, saying it’s “the first smartphone that can achieve speeds of 2.0 GHz”. “Can achieve” and “does achieve” aren’t necessarily the same thing, so I’m a little curious about why Motorola worded their press release using the less clear terminology. Nonetheless, if the phone truly runs at 2GHz, it’ll be a first, and significantly “faster” than other Androids, right?
The ARM Cortex-A9 is capable of up to four cores and 2GHz, though we haven’t seen any devices take full advantage of this yet.
The Medfield, unlike the ARM we’re comparing it against, is a single-core processor, but it does employ Intel’s “hyper-threading” technology to give the impression of two cores. Though this isn’t as speedy, it does have advantages over single-core chips. How does it fare with dual- and quad-core ARMs clocked “significantly slower” than 2GHz? Not that great according to early benchmarks.
Don’t get me wrong, from what we’ve seen, the Medfield chip is a pretty little package. We now officially have a new CPU player in the game. Up to this point Androids have all used ARM-based chips of one sort or another.
While it’s true different manufacturers have built chips based on ARM (Qualcomm, TI, Nvidia, etc.), they’ve still been using the same foundation to build upon. Now we’ve got a new foundation. Competition is good, so I suspect we’ll only see things get better.