Atom chip on Android smartphones expected at CES

Analysts say the anticipated move from LG and Samsung could signal a shift away from ARM-based chips in smartphones

LG Electronics and Samsung are expected to unveil Android smartphones next week that use Intel's latest Atom chip, dubbed Medfield, analysts said. The move, if it pans out, could portend a shift away from ARM-based chips, which are in 95 percent of smartphones.

The arrival of Atom-based smartphones at the International CES show in Las Vegas would join Google and Intel at the hip, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. With Google in the midst of acquiring Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, at least some Motorola smartphones could be soon running Atom chips, as well.

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A joint Intel-Google effort on smartphone designs would also allow Intel to incorporate smartphone security software from McAfee, which is an Intel company.

"It helps Google especially to have McAfee in the mix, because Android is not known for its security," Gold said. "Intel has spent a lot of time with Google to optimize Android for their chips."

LG, Samsung, and Google could not be reached for comment on their smartphone announcements at CES, which runs Jan. 10-13. Several analysts said LG and Samsung are expected to show off Atom-based smartphones at the event. LG has set a news conference for Monday morning to discuss a range of announcements; Samsung has set a separate news conference on Monday afternoon. Presumably, new Android phones on Atom processors would run the latest Android 4.0 operating system, known also as Ice Cream Sandwich, though that isn't certain.

Intel has released a photo of a reference design smartphone running Medfield, which MIT's Technology Review posted recently online. According to Technology Review, Intel Vice President of Architecture Stephen Smith said products based on Medfield would be announced in the first half of 2012. That dovetails with what Intel promised at its Intel Developer Forum in September.

Technology Review said the Medfield prototype phone looked similar to an Apple iPhone 4, although it weighed less. Intel would not comment about any upcoming Atom announcements at CES.

Although the Intel prototype ran Android 2.3, Gold said Intel and others would need to offer devices that use Android 4.0 to stay competitive.

"Atom in smartphones could do well if they get this right, and LG's should be the real first competitive offering," Gold said. "But Intel has a lot of catching up with Qualcomm and Nvidia on smartphone chips. Medfield allows Intel to get into the game. Intel's been struggling to get a toe-hold in smartphones."

Rob Enderle, of Enderle Group, said he also expects Samsung and LG to unveil Atom-based smartphones on Android at CES. But he agreed that ARM-based phones will be "very hard to displace."

Enderle said the new Atom phones would have to be at least 20 percent better in performance or cheaper or offer demonstrably better security features to assure significant adoption.

"Security enhancements might do it for Atom smartphones, since Atom's inherently more secure, but security isn't always the biggest selling point," Enderle said. "I really doubt Atom phones would have what it takes to succeed, especially since the ARM makers aren't standing still."

Although Intel is expected to make major news at CES related to chips for ultrabooks, it is also hoping to tap into a smartphone market that will remain robust. Most analysts believe users who rely on a tablet, laptop or ultrabook for inputing long emails and producing detailed content will still want a smartphone.

Intel exited the smartphone chip market when it sold Strongarm chip technology to Marvell and has taken years to build Atom into its Medfield release. "That [sale] was actually a smart decision at the time," Gold said.

Prior to Medfield, Atom chips were power hungry because they spread processing across several pieces of silicon. Medfield is truly on a single chip, making it more efficient and more competitive with ARM-based designs, analysts said.

Although Gold has seen Medfield in operation and was impressed, he hasn't been able to compare it with ARM-based phones.

Even if a smartphone design with Medfield doesn't catch on, analysts said the processor could do well in tablet computers once the Windows 8 operating system appears this year. A beta of Windows 8 is due out in February.

Microsoft could also rely on Atom designs for future Windows Phone 7.5 or 8 devices. "Atom on tablets probably has a better shot than atom on smartphones," Enderle said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

This story, "Atom chip on Android smartphones expected at CES" was originally published by Computerworld.

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