CES dispatches: Intel keeps pushing x86 rock up smartphone hill

Intel may still be struggling to gain traction in the smartphone and tablet markets, but don’t expect the company to abandon its efforts or do anything radical to change them.

The PC chipmaking giant has been trying for years to break into the post-PC computing market with almost no success. Apple reportedly considered using Intel chips in its first iPhone until Steve Jobs was talked out of the notion by other Apple executives. Other phone companies have needed less persuasion to avoid Intel, preferring to stick almost entirely to chips based on designs or technology from ARM.

But Erik Reid, who heads up Intel’s smartphone and tablet efforts, believes that success is just around the corner. In a meeting we had at the Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Reid noted that there are now six phones and 10 tablets shipping that have Intel processors in them. (That doesn’t include the numerous convertible PCs hitting the market that can act as tablets.)

That may not sound like much,  but a year ago there were no phones shipping that had Intel chips in them. So the company has made tangible — if small — progress.

What’s more, the company feels like the initial phones have shown that it’s processors can compete head-to-head with the latest ARM designs, offering similar or better performance and battery life. In fact, comparisons between Motorola’s Intel-based Razr I with its ARM-based Razr M have been largely favorable for the former.

“We proved that we could deliver power and performance and be competitive,” Reid said.

The big difference between the phones is that Intel’s version didn’t support LTE, but the company is working on bringing LTE support this year. And Intel is moving to a new generation of process technology that promises faster, more power-efficient chips that could help it better compete with the highest-end ARM-based chips.

As a result, Intel plans to continue to pursue the smartphone and tablet markets. Some pundits have called on the company to abandon the effort to put its signature x86 chips in such devices and instead start manufacturing ARM chips itself for smartphones and tablets. But Reid dismissed that notion.

“We really believe in the value of the x86 architecture,” he said. “We think we can deliver a superior value proposition.”

But Intel clearly still has a tough road in front of it. No Intel-based smartphone is being offered in the United States, and none of the major smartphone makers have embraced Intel chips. And the two biggest — Samsung and Apple — are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

With ARM technology, smartphone makers can design and customize chips to meet their own specifications. Apple’s devices, for example, famously run on Apple’s own chips (that use ARM technology).

Smartphone makers can also choose from multiple providers for those chips, including Qualcomm, Samsung and Nvidia, instead of relying on just one vendor. With the various chipmakers emphasizing different features of their chips, smartphone makers can find the chips that best suit their needs.

Intel’s chips can’t offer such advantages. They come from just one vendor. And while Reid said that Intel talks extensively with customers to figure out which chip best meets their needs and to tune the software so the phone runs smoothly, customers don’t necessarily get the chance to customize the chips themselves for their needs.

So, while Intel may be making progress in the smartphone and tablet markets, it still has mountains to climb.

(Image courtesy of Intel.)

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (255 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.