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Intel chips into tablets, but faces ARM battle

Chipmaker announces availability of tablet-optimized processors and aims to become tablet chip of choice for OEMs through support for multiple platforms. But analysts note tough competition against ARM.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Journalist on

In efforts to entice tablet makers to its Oak Trail platform, Intel is touting the chipset's capability to run different operating systems (OS) as a key selling point. However, analysts say the chip giant will face tough competition from ARM which currently has a strong footprint in the tablet market.

In a phone interview Monday with ZDNet Asia, George Chacko, Intel platform marketing manager, said the company is focused on offering OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners platform choice--namely, Google Android, Microsoft Windows and Intel's own Linux-based offering, Meego.

Starting May, he revealed that as many as 35 tablets running on Oak Trail will be available from OEMs such as Fujitsu, Lenovo and Evolve III. According to Intel, Evolve III's tablet will be able to triple boot, allowing users to switch between the Android, MeeGo and Windows operating systems,

Chacko added that the Oak Trail chipset offers several benefits such as a footprint that is 60 percent smaller compared to its previous generations, higher performance, better battery life and lower cost. He was unable to reveal the chip's pricing.

Aside from consumer functionalities, he said the Oak Trail platform is also suitable for slates used for point-of-sales retail, medical and industrial applications.

Moving forward, Intel also hopes to make the new platform chips off the old block, offering functions and capabilities currently available on its mainstream processors to the tablet platform. Functionalities such as encryption and anti-theft will be available in future releases of the Oak Trail family, he said, adding that the company will also introduce security components from Intel's McAfee acquisition.

Intel in ARM wrestle
Analysts ZDNet Asia spoke to noted that Intel is not too late into the tablet game but could face an impending battle with current market player, ARM.

In an e-mail interview, Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, noted that the slate market is still in its "infancy" stage and there is "plenty of room for different platforms" to compete.

In fact, McGregor said the OS, rather than hardware, will drive this market segment.

"I have seen tablets running on both ARM and MIPS devices so an X86-based tablet is not out of the question, as long as [the device] can meet the battery life requirements and provide a compelling [user] experience," he said.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Michael J. Palma, IDC's research manager of consumer device semiconductors and electronics manufacturing services, stressed the importance of the app ecosystem for tablet players.

To see market success, Intel will need to be mindful of its chipset's performance, processing capabilities and power consumption, Palma noted.

He added that the chipmaker will face a formidable opponent in the form of ARM, noting that the latter "virtually controls the tablet market". Both the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab run on ARM chipsets.

McGregor noted: "Beating ARM in tablets is a hard one...[and] Intel is playing catch-up in tablets just as it is in smartphones which both use the same [category of] processors today."

Intel will need to support the right OS to penetrate the market, he said, reiterating his observation that the slate market will be driven by the OS. "Intel has been pushing MeeGo, while the entire industry is going toward Android.

"However, [with] Intel [pushing its focus on] supporting multiple OSes, I would expect to see more support for Android in the future," he said.

McGregor added that Intel also needs to achieve the right performance criteria. "Although x86 CPUs typically do have more performance than ARM cores, most of the products [both chipsets compete in] are not standing still and are quickly moving from dual-Cortex A9 configurations to quad-core A9 or A15 configurations with multiple GPUs," he explained.

"Finally, Intel needs to be able to differentiate their products in terms of features and this is going to be very challenging because all the devices on the market are highly integrated systems-on-a-chip," he said.

Intel recently acquired a SoC company in an effort to boost its mobile capabilities, according to reports.

McGregor said: "Intel has a difficult challenge ahead but they also have the manufacturing expertise, financial resources and engineering expertise to make it an interesting battle."

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