Bearing ARMS: Chip wars heat up at CES

Intel has new competition as Microsoft announces compatibility for ARM-based architectures

Note: This article was updated at 4 p.m. Jan. 6 to correct an inaccurate reference to the Intel Atom as an ARM processor.

The computer chip wars are heating up in Las Vegas at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Every major chip-maker is in on the act, and the longtime dominant player in the PC market, Intel, could have a battle on its hands to retain the top spot in the world of processors.

It boils down to architecture and the compatibility of system-on-a-chip (SoC) manufacturers.

Microsoft announced that it will be supporting SoC architecture from ARM manufacturers as well as Intel and AMD in future versions of Windows.

“With today’s announcement, we’re showing the flexibility and resiliency of Windows through the power of software and a commitment to world-class engineering," said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft, in a company press release. "We continue to evolve Windows to deliver the functionality customers demand across the widest variety of hardware platforms and form factors.”

Since the early 1980s, the two primary types of chip – ARM and x86 – have been vying for mind and market share of the original equipment manufacturers, but until relatively recently, there has been no contest at all. Intel, the flagship maker of the x86 platform, had its chips in just about every personal computer and server on the market. Its primary x86 competition, AMD, has always been an also-ran in the chip wars and Intel never really worried about ARM architecture because it was seen as not being powerful enough to process at desktop of laptop PC levels.

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At lot of the x86 dominance has had to do with Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash., giant created its Windows operating system platform to run on x86, thus making it difficult for the primary ARM chip makers – Qualcomm, Nvidia, Texas Instruments – to gain foothold in the PC market. Yet, with the “smart device” revolution of the last several years (think smart phones, tablets, netbooks),  ARM has been the processor of choice. As opposed to the x86 architecture, ARM is simpler and uses less power in its processing, thus making it a great option for manufacturers and consumers looking for maximum battery life.

Intel introduced its Atom chip as a challenge to ARM processors, but it has been criticized as being too power-hungry. A majority of smart devices being released these days use either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, Samsung’s Hummingbird or Texas Instruments Open Multimedia Application Platform. Apple makes its own ARM chip, the A4, found in iPhones and iPads.

Except for trying to create a foothold in the mobile world for Atom (with its October acquisition of German chip-maker Infineon a step in that direction), Intel has had very little to worry about in the x86 PC market.

Until Wednesday.

Microsoft’s announcement was just the start of the fun.

Intel and AMD have both announced new generations of x86 chips. Intel has its second generation of Intel Core Processors (i3, i5, i7), codenamed Sandy Bridge. AMD has announced its Fusion Accelerated Processing Unit family of chips, hoping to steal a little of Intel’s thunder with a low-power SoC design.

But the big news has been coming from the ARM players. Nvidia announced that it is releasing “Project Denver,” an ARM-based CPU aimed at personal and high-performance computing, a territory that has not historically been associated with ARM.

More intrigue arose when Qualcomm announced that it is buying Atheros, a chip-maker that produces a majority all of the Wi-Fi chips that go into mobile devices. The move gives Qualcomm the ability to pitch manufacturers the option of creating devices powered exclusively by Qualcomm-made chips, without having to use Intel or AMD hardware to round out Wi-Fi or other processing functions.

All of these technologies will undoubtedly be making their way through various devices to federal and local governments. The added competition to Intel and the play by Microsoft for all-device ubiquity on any SoC should, in the foreseeable future, result in computer, server, smart phone and tablet prices dropping for commercial buyers.


About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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