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Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Monday, 20 September 2010 11:43 UK

Mobile chips battle for processing power

By Spencer Kelly
BBC Click

ARM Cortex-A15
The Cortex-A15, the latest mobile processor designed by ARM

Inside your smartphone, a battle is raging. As tiny chips with big ambitions fight for processing power, is there anything the phones of the future will not be able to do?

High-definition TV and ultra-complex gaming - all in 3D - is a big task for any computer.

Especially as it tries to calculate the way the shadows should behave, or the way the light should reflect off each of the two million pixels on screen, 50 times a second.

Such complex graphics on home computers have only become possible in the last few years, as chip technology has caught up with designers' aspirations.

But in the future, mobile phones will be able to handle this and much more - thanks to the prototype chips being designed by one of the most quietly successful and profitable companies in IT - ARM.

ARM does not manufacture chips but rather designs them for other people to make.

As the manufacturing process in which chips are made has changed, we have been able to pack more and more performance into the same piece of silicon
Laurence Bryant, ARM

Around 95% of the world's smartphones have an ARM chip inside and, although the company does not discuss its customers, it is widely believed that there is even an ARM chip inside Apple's iPad.

ARM designs are so popular with mobile manufacturers because of their low power consumption.

Whereas a home computer can draw more electricity from the mains when it needs to do something complicated, mobile devices need to manage their power consumption carefully, lest they suck their tiny batteries dry.

Snapdragon silicon

ARM's director of marketing, Laurence Bryant, says it is something that ARM, with its Reduced Instruction Set Computing, has specialised in for 20 years.

"In the mobile world, the primary driver has always been about low power and this seems to be taking the biggest traction in the industry right now.

"Once you have got that low power you can create low-cost and small form factors. You can have smaller batteries and you can be innovative with your form factor and your industrial design.

"As the manufacturing process in which chips are made has changed, we have been able to pack more and more performance into the same piece of silicon."

So much performance, in fact, that you will now find ARM inside bigger more powerful devices - tablet computers, e-readers and even netbook-style devices.

Qualcomm prototype
This Qualcomm prototype uses an ARM chip to run four HD videos at once

One of the best-known chips based on the architecture that ARM licenses to manufacturers is technology company Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor.

At Qualcomm's recent iQ showcase, prototype phones were sporting a new graphics processing unit, giving them graphical oomph to rival a desktop machine - running a 3D game, showing four HD videos at once and rendering real-time mapping applications with 3D graphics.

Intel is the world's biggest chip maker - open a PC and there is a very good chance that you will find, to coin its own marketing slogan, Intel inside.

But there is not a single smartphone in the world that has the same credentials. So why not? After all, Intel do have a low-power chip, the Atom, which is widely used in netbooks.

Heavily-armed market

Ian Fogg of Forrester Research explains that Intel have had limited success pushing the Atom into smaller devices.

"Part of the problem is, they are coming from the PC market and they are having to design something that is super efficient.

"There are already established players in mobile and having completely different technology means a company does not just have to change the processor, but they have to change other parts of their product that tie in to the processor.

"It is quite a big decision for a company to switch away from ARM technology to something very different."

The chip Intel is hoping to break into the smartphone market with is a version of the Atom - codenamed Moorestown and laden with amazing claims about power efficiency and performance.

Atom-powered mobile phone
The world's only demo of a mobile powered by Intel's Moorestown chip

But so far, there has only been one smartphone demo with the Moorestown chipset inside and soon after its unveiling at consumer technology tradeshow CES in January, its development was halted.

Speaking at the show, Intel's chief executive Paul Otellini did not seem convinced that smartphones were the future at all.

"I think a lot of the growth is going to be mobile, in all form factors. It is way too early to decide which form factor is going to win - the laptop, the netbook, the smartphone. For the foreseeable future they are all going to thrive."

Intel argues that since we will expect a full PC experience from tomorrow's mobile devices, it makes sense to have the same make of chips in both, to ensure full compatibility.

That is why it says its Moorestown smartphones, now scheduled for 2011, are the sensible choice of architecture.

But with Nokia launching its latest ARM-powered devices this week, and Samsung announcing its first dual core ARM processor for smartphones and tablets, Intel may well find it difficult to force its way into an already heavily armed market.

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