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A closer look at Intel’s ARM-powered CES demo hardware

Intel turned a lot of heads at last week's Consumer Electronics Show with prototype wearable tech products that CEO Brian Krzanich said would help pave the way for "a transformation from a world of screens and devices to a world of immersive experiences."

But some of the demo devices Krzanich wowed CES attendees with last week didn't have Intel chips powering them. Intel has confirmed this, with Intel spokesperson Bill Calder saying that some of the reference designs that Intel brought to the tech show had "third-party parts" in them.

Calder also downplayed the significance of that fact.

The Intel spokesman didn't specify which demo products had third-party chips inside or who made them, but a source with knowledge of the matter identified an always-on smart headset called "Jarvis" that syncs with smartphones as having an ARM-based chip inside.

A pair of smart earbuds with health and fitness capabilities also used non-Intel circuitry, though this fairly simple, sensor-based demo device didn't use any complex central processor or microcontroller, Intel, ARM, or otherwise, Calder indicated.

Krzanich also demoed a smartwatch and an innovative bowl-shaped wireless device charger during his pre-show keynote.

Intel holds a license to use the ARM architecture in chip design. Calder made the point that under its new CEO Krzanich, Intel has made a commitment to moving faster to get cutting-edge technology to market.

"Would we use third-party technology to get an exciting new reference design out there, in front of people? Sure, but I wouldn't read too much into that," he said. The Intel spokesman also pointed to past instances where Intel had brought ultimately successful technologies to market with third-party components, only to add its own in-house silicon later. For example, he referenced the first iteration of the Centrino platform, which didn't add Intel's own wireless chip to the package until later generations.

"Despite that, you still have to say we lit the fire on wireless," Calder said.

He also took a jab at ARM, saying, "If you want a powered-down, lower performing chip for a reference design, ARM's great."

Intel has been struggling for several years to position its Atom line of low-power processors against System-on-a-Chip (SoC) designs based on the ARM architecture, which currently dominate the mobile device market. More recently, the chip giant introduced an even more stripped-down, power-stingy family of processors called Quark.

The Quark line is built for wearables and embedded applications in the exciting Internet-of-Things space. Intel served up its first Quark-based development board last October. At CES, the company unveiled Edison, a functioning, Quark-powered computer with wireless capabilities that's as slim and small as an SD card.

Edison, which Krzanich also demoed at CES, does use an Intel processor and microcontroller.

Though Intel doesn't appear to have directly stated that the reference designs showcased at CES used Quark or other Intel-integrated circuits, the problem here seems to be that many who witnessed the keynote came away with the impression that all the devices being shown were Intel-based.

For example, here's my colleague Tim Bajarin's take:

"In Intel's keynote, CEO Brian Krzanich introduced a lot of devices based on Intel's Quark processors that can be placed in wearables to connect them to an ecosystem of apps and services. Examples ranged from baby monitoring systems to other devices for the home. Intel also introduced the Edison SOC, a complete system the size of an SD card for use in wearables and other mobile devices. Intel made it very clear it plans to be a major player in IOE."

Intel made it clear that it expected some or all of the reference designs it showed at CES to be the basis for generally available products in 2014. It will be interesting to see if there is "Intel Inside" them when they do arrive.