Intel's 2013 mobile roadmap: Think iteration, not innovation

Intel has outlined its processor plans for the coming year, but there's a feeling of evolution rather than revolution about the announcement as it attempts to woo the all-important low end.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

Intel may have been upstaged at CES (the Consumer Electronic Show) this year by Qualcomm's bizarre keynote address, which featured hammy acting and an eclectic mix of guest appearances from Desmond Tutu, Big Bird and Microsoft's very own Steve Ballmer, but the more serious problem for the chipmaker is how it plans square up to Qualcomm's dominance of mobile processors.

Around one year ago, Intel outlined its ambitions to break into the smartphone market using a new version of its Atom processor. One year on, we have the Orange Santa Clara and the Motorola RAZRi, and little else to speak of, at least in the UK. To say that Intel hasn't taken the mobile market by storm is an understatement, but it did at least get into the game last year with some small wins.

At its CES press conference in Las Vegas on Monday, Intel outlined its new chips, which included two low-power chips aimed specifically at smartphones: namely, the Atom Z2420 (formerly codenamed 'Lexington') and the Z2580 (formerly known as 'Clover Trail +').

The 2420 is the lower specced of the two and is aimed squarely at the huge opportunity that lies in developing markets. It claims specs of up to 1.2GHz clock speed, 1080p hardware accelerated encoding and decoding, support for multiple cameras and "advanced imaging capabilities" found in higher-end devices.

The Z2580, in contrast, is aimed at more mainstream or high-end phones, with Intel claiming it's twice as powerful as its current generation Z2460.

Emerging hopes

With Intel placing more emphasis on the low-end and emerging markets, it's clear where it sees the greatest opportunity to break into the mobile space in volume, an assessment shared by the Linley Group of analysts, which said on 1 January that most growth in mobile in 2013 will take place in China and other price-conscious countries.

"After years of racing to deliver more performance, smartphone makers shifted their attention to the low end. In China, the world's largest smartphone market, half of all smartphones sell for less than 1,000 Yuan ($160), and some prices have fallen below 700 Yuan," the Linley Group said.

So perhaps the focus on low-end is a sensible decision for Intel, especially considering the fact that its competitors at the other end of the market are now shipping quad-core handsets, with more on the way.

While Intel also outlined its quad-core Bay Trail plans for the tablet market at CES, much of that space is dominated by ARM designs, meaning Intel has a similarly difficult task on its hands.

Alex Gauna, an analyst at JMP Securities, said Intel's announcements "fell short of introducing any new breakthrough design wins or use cases" and that its achievements were iterative, rather than "the game changers its marketing is claiming".

Both Texas Instruments (TI) and Freescale decided to abandon the smartphone and tablet processor markets, illustrating just how little room there is at the top and the relatively easier opportunities afforded by getting your chips embedded in other devices.

With the road ahead in the mobile market looking rocky, Intel is moving quickly to try and grab the easiest wins it can, primarily in developing markets that are not yet dominated by the big brands that own the high-end. However, with increasing pressures on and from handset makers, Intel will either need to provide a strong incentive to switch to their designs or play the long game and hope that emerging market success can be replicated in more mature regions. After all, Intel needs smartphones more than smartphones need it.

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