Intel is keenly aware of the threat ARM poses, as well as the opportunity to break into a market that’s exploding. Sales of tablets alone are expected to triple this year, reaching 55 million. That’s why Intel formed a netbook and tablet group (emphasis on tablet) in December 2010.
While sales of shrunken laptops continue to grow in emerging markets, U.S. shoppers are increasingly choosing slates over netbooks. “My tablet basically goes everywhere with me,” said Ian Drew, executive vice president of marketing at ARM. “It’s got 10-hour battery life and it’s easy to carry around. I find myself using my laptop more and more just at home.”
Although the tablet market is still in its infancy, there’s no question that ARM and its partners have nearly all the momentum. In fact, Compal, the world’s second-largest notebook manufacturer, said it expects 90 percent of the 3.8 million tablet devices it ships this year to use chips from ARM and run Google’s Android operating system.
Why is ARM so dominant? Because most tablets today are based on smart phone architecture, with an emphasis on ultra-low power. “Intel hasn’t really been under the gun as much because they haven’t had the pressure to be as power-efficient over the last few years,” said Flint Pulskamp, research director of wireless semiconductors at IDC. “A laptop has a much bigger form factor. It has a bigger battery. Intel has had other priorities.”
Intel’s priorities are now shifting, and the company claims that more than 35 tablets will ship this year with its Atom processor inside. Many of these slates, which use Intel’s Oak Trail CPU, promise up to 8 hours of battery life. And it’s not just Windows 7 tablets, either. Intel says Android-powered Atom devices are coming from ASUS, Lenovo, and others.
However, with both Nvidia and Qualcomm bringing more powerful dual-core ARM processors to hot tablets such as the Motorola Xoom and the upcoming HP TouchPad, Intel faces an uphill battle. “I can’t imagine why, given the choice, anybody would pick Atom,” said Bill Dally, Nvidia’s chief scientist. “I think it’s just a lack of competitiveness in terms of the energy efficiency of the processor.”
Bill Kircos, general manager of sales and marketing for Intel’s new Netbook and Tablet Group, believes that the power gap between Atom and ARM is overblown. “I do believe the whole battery life perception is much more perception than reality,” he argued. “If you do an apples to apples thing, we’re giving you better performance for a specific length of time.”
Kircos admits that Intel still has a ways to go on efficiency, but he also stressed that the company will be throwing its vast resources behind Atom to go through three nanometer process generations in three years. Talk about defying Moore’s Law. “We have a line of sight there, so I don’t think the battery life thing will be a challenge.”
IDC’s Pulskamp agrees that Intel will catch up to ARM. But it will take some time. “In the next two or three years, the power-performance difference will probably be fairly negligible.” He says that the operating system and software will become paramount.