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Intel Medfield Atom – impact on smartphones and tablets?

So, Intel's first smartphone Atoms are out, at least in CES show halls. The performance seems good, and the big Intel name is behind it. However, are there greater implications beyond just that?

While Intel is the all dominant king of the PC processor world, it was next to nothing when it comes to the recent fashion fad – smartphones and tablets. While these don't have much dollar revenue per CPU – it's just a few percent of what one Xeon can earn, per unit – the hundreds of millions of units sold make a huge mindshare statement in the heads of whole population worldwide. Even a remote villager deep in Africa will want to have a phone, but he may never bother about a computer.

So, Intel has to do in the smartphone & tablet world what its competitors were, for decades, trying to do in the PC market – unseat, or at least challenge, a very powerful incumbent. Yes, the ARM grouping isn't nearly as cohesive as one single company, and sometimes their agreeing processes remind us of Communist Party Central Commitee meetings of old. Yet, the combined strength of Samsung, Qualcomm, Apple, TI, Nvidia and others is not to ignore – after all, even AMD takes the ARM seriously as one of its potential future escape routes, so to say.

The initial reception to the Medfield show at CES, especially in those lovely HD-resolution phones, isn't bad. The phones with it seem really fast, ahead of current ARM phone processors, and the power consumption – while no figures around yet – didn't seem to be an issue. Of course, that all may change once Cortex A15-based ARM cores are out later this year, but there is more to it than just performance and power game here.

Let's look at it from another angle: Atom architecture is 64-bit by default, and while the phones don't need such memory yet, it does help on the binary compatibility front, since the same binary could run on this phone, as it runs on an Atom microserver, or a Xeon supercomputer. Not likely to be used often, but good to have. ARM, keep in mind, still needs another two years to take care of the 64-bitness in actual shipping products.

Then there is another aspect, often overlooked: the X86, as much as we dislike it technically – myself included – has that huge library of software, including operating systems. A X86-based, that means Medfield in this case, smartphone or tablet, is not limited to Android or future Windows 8. With the appropriate driver support, it could run any of today's X86 Linux distributions, and of course it could run the current Windows 7. In theory, someone could even hack the full fledge MacOS X to boot on a Medfield phone or tablet…

Why is that important? While Android, iOS and Windows 8 Phone solely depend on 'remote control of the user' via online marketplace application stores, the desktop operating systems like the standard Linuxes, Windows or MacOS give you full freedom to find, install and run binaries from any possible source, whether it's from a CD, USB flash, or any other. Basically, you as the user have far more freedom on desktop OS platforms than on the mobile phone OS platforms. It may not seem so critical from everyday point of view, but the strategic value of freedom to install and run what you wish, as you wish, is great.

Now, Atom, unlike ARM, can run all these without problems – a little slow, yes, but still run fine. Whether Intel and its launch partners in the smartphone and tablet markets use this capability as a big-time feature, or just ignore or even disable it, is another story. However, the capability is there, and running Windows 7, even if non-Aero setup, or say Ubuntu Linux, on a high end smartphone like that Lenovo HD unit at CES, would be quite a feat to show. 

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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