Intel has been slow to crack the mobile device market, but the company may have some new tricks up its sleeve which, combined with one very old one, could result in next-generation x86-based processors that give the dominant ARM architecture a serious run for its money.
The chip giant outlined this new path for its ultra-low power System-on-a-Chip (SoC) designs in a paper presented at the 2012 International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco.
But Intel isn't just relying on die shrinks. The company said it will move its Atom SoC platform to 22nm differently than it did with Core and Xeon.
"This SoC variant of Intel's 22nm logic process differs from the original CPU variant, which entered production in late 2011, by being optimized for low power SoC products," Intel spokesperson Chuck Mulloy told PCMag in an email.
The new twist on Intel's 22nm process "incorporates low standby power and high voltage transistors together with high-speed logic transistors in a single SoC chip to achieve industry leading drive currents (a measure of performance) and record low leakage levels (a measure of power)," he added.
Designers of Intel's next-gen SoCs will have a great deal of flexibility in mixing and matching different types of transistors, high-density interconnects, and RF/mixed-signal features, Mulloy said.
The authors of the IEDM paper elaborated further, saying that Intel is the first company to develop "a leading edge 22nm SoC process technology featuring 3D tri-gate transistors which employs high speed logic transistors, low standby power transistors, and high-voltage tolerant transistors simultaneously in a single SoC chip to support a wide range of products, including premium smartphones, tablets, netbooks, embedded systems, wireless communications, and ASIC products."
The company actually revealed the general shape of its 22nm SoC strategy at the annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco earlier this year—specifically talking about its ability to optimize next-gen products for performance or low power leakage. The IEDM paper simply reveals a lot more technical details about how Intel does that.
The problem for Intel is they can only design one chip since they're vertically integrated and have to tune it to hit a broad smartphone operating point sweet spot. Apple and Samsung on the other hand each make finely tuned custom chips designed just for their specific operating parameters. Add to that Qualcomm and Nvidia. That makes 4 major chip designs that Intel has to go up against. No wonder ARM CEO East says he only expects them to get about 5% market share over the years. Will the process advantage flood out these factors? Let's wait and see.