Intel, Nokia to reveal “Penwell” Atom-based smartphone platform at MWC?

Intel’s strategy for many years has been “x86 everywhere,” bringing the processors that power desktop computers down to laptops, netbooks, TVs, DVRs, and more, and now it looks like the company might finally be ready for a push into smartphones, courtesy of a deal with Nokia. Engadget reports that Intel and Nokia will make a joint presentation at Mobile World Congress next week.  While the event will probably be related to something simple, like a refreshed Booklet (Nokia’s netbook), we’re told Intel and Nokia might begin to talk about a new wireless platform combining Intel’s CPU bits with a Nokia radio chipset.  More information below.

The Atom chip is Intel’s central focus for non-PC markets, and it’s done quite well, but one glaring hole remains in the smartphone industry, where processors based on ARM chips are king. ARM processors power every smartphone on the market today, and the fastest ARM chips, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Apple’s new A4 chip, come almost within striking distance of Atom’s performance while sipping a fraction of the power.

The current “Pineview” Atom chips have not succeeded in anything smaller than netbooks, so Intel is hoping that its next-generation Atom CPU, codenamed “Moorestown,” will cut down power and heat levels enough for smartphone makers to adopt the chip. But unlike PC processors, which are paired with separate controller chipsets on the motherboard, smartphone processors are highly integrated, with a general purpose processor, graphics chip, audio controller, radio chipset, and more all built into one package.

That’s where “Medfield” comes in.  The successor to Moorestown will focus on chipset integration and power reduction beyond anything seen in x86 chips yet.  Medfield will also be based on the first Intel platform allowing third parties to integrate their designs with the Atom core.

In June 2009, Intel and Nokia released a joint statement with lots of vagaries, but one thing they did mention was that “Intel will also acquire a Nokia HSPA/3G modem IP license for use in future products.”  So it makes sense that they would offer a Medfield-based Atom platform with either built-in radios or a built-in baseband with a matching radio chipset.  This would offer much better power control than using separate components.

SemiAccurate has found traces of a yet-unannounced Intel chip called “Penwell,” which they speculate could be the result of adding an Intel-licensed radio to the Medfield Atom CPU, producing it on a 32nm low-leakage process, and adding phone-specific functionality from Nokia.  While Nokia would continue to use ARM chips for most of its phones, “Penwell” would give it a top-of-the-line processor to outclass all other ARM-based competitors in the high-end smartphone market.

Timing is the key to Intel’s mobile puzzle.  Moorestown will be out in mobile internet devices (MIDs), and perhaps some smartphones, by the end of 2010 (Intel showed running prototypes from LG and Aava in January).  But by that time, ARM’s next-generation Cortex A9 chip will be on the market in full force, through offerings like Nvidia’s Tegra 2.  Will Medfield come out in time to battle ARM on a level playing field in 2010?  We’ll have to wait and see.

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  1. March 14, 2010

    […] working on smaller, cooler-running, and more power-efficient versions of Atom (see Intel codename Penwell) that may finally bring x86 (and thus compatibility with desktop OSes and applications) to mobile […]

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