Intel turns to ARM chip maker Rockchip to expand in low-cost tablet market

Intel will design a variant of its Sofia chip for Rockchip

Intel hopes to expand its offerings for the low-cost Android market by working with Chinese chip maker, Rockchip, which primarily makes ARM chips.

As part of an agreement reached on Monday, the two companies will jointly deliver an Intel-branded mobile chip platform. The first chip, due in the first half of 2015, will be for low-cost Android devices based on Intel's Sofia architecture, which integrates an Atom processor and 3G modem.

Intel will make a quad-core derivative of the Sofia chip for Rockchip. Intel and Rockchip make for strange bedfellows. Rockchip's chip business currently revolves around smartphone, tablet and embedded processors based on the ARM architecture. But by adding Intel's x86 chip architecture to its line of processors, Rockchip could further increase its presence in low-cost smartphones and tablets, where it currently has a foothold.

A customized chip for Rockchip will be the first such deal of its type struck by Intel for mobile devices. Intel is not licensing its intellectual property, but this agreement is "designed specifically to expand the breadth of and accelerate the rate at which we bring our Intel architecture and communications solutions to more customers and segments of the global market for entry and value tablets," said Kari Aakre, an Intel spokeswoman.

Intel is working closely with Rockchip's design teams to modify the design of Sofia to create the customized quad-core chip. The chip will be initially manufactured by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.), Aakre said.

Intel has not shied away from customizing chips, but it does so for only specific clients that buy chips in bulk. Intel currently customizes server chips for companies like Facebook and Google.

Though Rockchip, Intel has an avenue to reach out to the little-known device makers -- also known as "white-box" vendors -- in the fast-growing China market. Rockchip competes with other ARM chip makers like Qualcomm, Mediatek, Allwinner, Samsung and Nvidia.

Intel is also planning dual-core variants of the Sofia chip for release next year. The integrated 3G modem in Sofia is based on ARM architecture, while the application processor is based on x86.

Intel will share more details about the chip at the Computex trade show next month in Taipei.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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