Intel pokes at ARM with 'Medfield' low-power Atom

Intel has announced its plans to take on British chip giant ARM in the mobile arena with the launch of its 'Medfield' low-power Atom processor range - but does it really have anything to offer above and beyond the market leader?

At this year's Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Intel proudly announced its latest 32nm Atom design - a low-power chip from a series it calls 'Medfield.' While it's not yet available in quantity, the company claimed that it has begun sampling the chip for its OEM customers - and that devices featuring Medfield processors will hit the market before the end of the year.

Medfield is Intel's latest attempt to woo the smartphone and embedded markets away from industry leader ARM, which creates low-power chip designs it then licenses to third parties to customise and build. ARM licensees include Texas Instruments, which recently announced a quad-core ARM system-on-chip known as the OMAP 5 platform, Nvidia, which plans its own quad-core variant known as Tegra 3, and Qualcomm, which used the MWC to unveil its own quad-core Snapdragon designs.

Medfield, however, is a dual-core design - and while the current range of tablets and so-called 'superphones' are content with a mere two cores, these recent announcements from ARM's multitudinous licensees indicate a clear trend towards quad-core designs for modern devices. With Intel yet to attempt to bring its higher-power netbook-oriented Atom designs to a quad-core level, it's unlikely that Medfield will be getting that honour any time soon.

Despite this, Intel is forging ahead with its attempts to convince the mobile industry that the x86 architecture can be a winner - and Medfield is a big part of that.

The Medfield Atom isn't alone, however. Taking its cues from successful ARM licensees like Qualcomm, Intel also announced the acquisition of imaging and video specialist Silicon Hive. This acquisition potentially gives the company the expertise it needs to create a fully integrated system-on-chip design that offers central processing, graphics, imaging, and - thanks to its earlier acquisition of Infineon's wireless business - radio communications support on a single chip.

It's this ability to create one-stop SoC designs that has lead to companies like Qualcomm taking ARM's designs and storming the mobile market - to the point now that a phone that doesn't have an ARM chip at its heart is considered a major oddity. With the same option now open to Intel, the company has massively increased its chances of offering a truly competitive product.

However, Intel has a long slog ahead of it - and despite claiming that multiple MeeGo and Android products with Medfield chips will be coming soon, it is likely to struggle to take on ARM in a market where the company enjoys such a massive home field advantage.