2016 will be the year of the Intel Atom processor
Snapdragon, MediaTek, Exynos, and A8 are SoCs – systems on a chip – that might be powering your smartphone or tablet right now. All of these processors follow the RISC style of computer chip technology, unlike CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) chips which are typically based around the x86 or x64 platform and power most desktop and laptop computers these days. RISC chips feature a reduced instruction set and have been stereotypically “underpowered” compared to their CISC counterparts, and therefore limited to mobile applications. With the increase in capabilities and popularity of mobile devices, Intel and its chips have taken a backseat to more power-efficient designs by other manufacturers.
Back in the day, instruction sets were incredibly important. There were things you simply couldn’t do with RISC. Today, those instruction sets have both gotten very robust. RISC has gotten more capable and CISC has gotten more efficient.
Now, however, Intel may finally be back in the game thanks to advances in the latest Intel Atom processors – but not in the way you might think.
Today’s smartphones are an an interesting breed of mobile device. They combine dedicated MP3 players, relatively high-end cameras, high-speed Internet terminals, gaming systems, GPS navigation solutions, and even TV functionality into what is argued to be primarily cell phone – all while remaining small enough to fit into a pocket.
Tablets took an odd step from “keyboard-less” laptops to “big smartphones”. When the first iPad was released I had a difficult time trying to explain it to people. It wasn’t a laptop without a keyboard, instead it was an entirely different kind of device. I resorted to this explanation:
“It’s like an iPhone, only bigger – and without the phone.”
It took some time but eventually apps matured, accessories arrived, and people started using tablets as lightweight laptop replacements. Microsoft even caught up and released its Surface lineup.
In most of these cases, RISC-style chips are the best choice. They offer a fair amount of processing power with remarkably low power consumption rates. However, there are some tradeoffs in application support and compatibility.
Whoah! Back the truck up, Joe! This is Pocketnow, and Pocketnow is all about mobile tech! Why are you going off the reservation?!
You’re absolutely right. Pocketnow is about mobile tech, but something interesting is happening in the mobile space these days: mobile devices are starting to replace what were previously non-mobile devices. What we used to do on desktop computers, home entertainment systems, and gaming consoles, we are now doing on smartphones and tablets. No big surprise there, right?
This shift has changed the landscape of technology in our homes and offices. In the past we might have a DSL or cable modem to connect our computer to the Internet, but now we also have fairly high-end wireless routers capable of handling dozens of wired and wireless hardware.
We have devices like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV Stick which let us consume our videos, music, and more on our big-screen TVs. Some of us even have some sort of NAS (Network Attached Storage) to store and stream our personal movie and music collections to the devices on our networks – even when we’re not connected to the Internet or paying for Hulu or Netflix.
All these devices that enable our mobile lifestyles require chipsets of their own – many times a RISC chipset isn’t the right choice for one of these embedded solutions. In my opinion, that’s where Intel’s Atom processor family fits in.
Intel used to be the king of the hill when any time processors were mentioned. Sure, AMD has given Intel a run for the money, but Intel still reigns supreme – except when you talk about mobile processors. That’s a space Intel has been trying to occupy for years. The company has made advances in that space, but it’s still not quite there. Yet.
According to sources, Intel is offering its chips to mobile OEMs at or below cost, as well as offering significant technical assistance to integrate and optimize those chips into new devices.
In the short term, the devices that empower your mobile lifestyle will start seeing more power-friendly Intel Atom processors built-in. Modems, routers, network attached storage devices, and more will become increasingly powered by Intel. High-end tablets powered by Microsoft’s Windows 10 will start popping up, powered by Intel’s Atom. Smartphones and tablets will follow suit. To a certain extent, they already are.
Intel still has an uphill battle to replace ARM-based processors in smartphones and tablets. It’s making inroads and we’ll see more devices with Intel inside in the coming years. 2016 is going to be a huge year for Intel, mark my words.
In the meantime, start looking around at all the peripherals that enable our mobile lifestyles. You might be surprised to see how many Intel chips are already powering devices that make our mobile lives better.