Intel says 'Medfield' smartphone coming early next year

The chip maker is still trying to break into a market where ARM processors dominate

Intel on Tuesday showed a prototype smartphone based on its low-power Medfield processor and said Intel-based phones from "major players" would be in the market next year.

Intel has struggled to get its chips into smartphones and tablets, markets that are dominated today by processor designs from Intel's U.K. rival ARM Holdings.

Intel had been working closely with Nokia to develop phones based on its Meego operating system, but Nokia pulled out of the partnership to focus on Windows phones instead.

"That was, in hindsight, perhaps the wrong partner to have picked," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said at the company's investor conference Tuesday, in perhaps the biggest understatement of the day.

Intel has taken the reference designs it created with Nokia and is shopping them around to other manufacturers, Otellini said. "We plan to have Medfield phones in the market early next year," he said.

The device Intel showed on stage looked much like an iPhone. It was running a version of Google's Android OS and displaying high-definition video. The company also has reference designs for 7-inch and 10-inch Medfield tablets.

Asked if Intel might produce its own ARM-based processors, Otellini said Intel has a license to produce ARM chips but that it wouldn't be in its interest to do so. That would eat into Intel's profits, since it would have to pay a royalty to ARM on each chip it sold, he said.

The company thinks it is better off improving its own Intel Architecture-based processors, which Otellini and other Intel executives contended can be as power-efficient as ARM-based processors.

While ARM chips may use less power in standby mode, Intel's processors are more efficient when performing tasks such as playing videos, according to Dadi Perlmutter, joint head of the Intel Architecture Group.

One analyst at the event noted that the first Medfield processor will have only a single core, while some ARM chip vendors are already promising quad-core processors next year.

Intel will release an updated, dual-core Medfield chip later next year, also made on a 32-nanometer manufacturing process, Perlmutter said. But he argued that more cores don't necessarily make a better chip.

Intel's more competitive phone and tablet chips won't appear until 2013 and 2014, when the company expects to introduce new 22-nanometer and 14-nanometer manufacturing processes. The figure refers to the smallest features etched into the chips, and smaller transistors use less power.

Intel hadn't planned to introduce those manufacturing processes so soon, but it's hurrying them into production to improve its competitiveness. The more advanced processes will also make possible extremely thin laptop computers at mainstream prices, Perlmutter said.

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James Niccolai

IDG News Service
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