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Chips off a new block

It beat AMD in the desktop space; now Intel must take on ARM in the mobile world

Time was when the processor wars raged between Intel and AMD, two brands competing to make the best x86 chips to power Windows PCs. Intel has in essence won that battle, delivering its popular Core i-series processors to the majority of consumer laptops and desktops. We rarely see AMD chips in high-performance laptops, although its chips do feature in low-cost sub-£500 laptops.

New skirmishes are now breaking out in the smartphone and tablet mobile world. The low-power ARM architecture dominates this landscape - at the moment, at least, although Intel is determined to make its presence known by doggedly reducing the size and power requirements of the ageing PC chip architecture. See Upgrade Advisor and Mobile Advisor.

Intel’s first real push into this space is with the smallest Intel Atom yet: the Z2460 is a complete system on a chip (SoC). It debuts in the Orange San Diego smartphone.

Right now, the draw of Intel’s lowest-power chips is still too high for decent longevity on phones. Next year’s Z2580 looks interesting, although it won’t necessarily help here: it majors on being a dual- rather than single-core chip, adding greater performance. But Intel’s chip is already quick enough, thanks, outpacing most current ARM chips. It’s low thermal design power (TDP) that counts, though.

Back with ARM, a new chip designer has shown its hand. Many commentators pegged Apple as little more than a rebrander of reference ARM designs, but its A6 processor may be far more advanced than first meets the eye.

It’s still seems to be fabricated by Samsung Semiconductor, using a 32nm process, and may use elements of ARM’s next-gen Cortex-A15 architecture that promises a 40 percent performance improvement. But X-rays suggest a proprietary realisation of ARM, probably using ideas from gifted chip designers Apple has hired in recent years.

All we know is that it’s the fastest mobile processor to date, and significantly outpaces its rivals. All this while still affording great battery life to the iPhone 5 in which it hides.

Samsung, naturally, has processor plans of its own. Its next revision of the Exynos chip may see it close this new gap.

Competition here is healthy, especially now that Texas Instruments is diverting away its focus from smartphone OMAP designs, which are popular in many budget Android handsets.

The rewards should trickle down to us users, not just in greater performance, but in ever more power-efficient designs.

The mobile war is really won by whoever’s handset is still running after several days of active use.

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