At its Intel Developer Forum event in San Francisco today, Intel announced a new range of low-power processors.
With the Atom project, Intel set its sights on the smartphone and tablet markets. Its major competition in these spaces came from ARM, with its Cortex A series of processors. Compared to Intel's desktop and laptop processors of the time, ARM's performance was pathetic, but its processors did something that Intel's couldn't: they drew just a watt or two of power, often less.
With the Saltwell range of Atom processors, Intel cracked that first nut. It had a processor that could go in a smartphone, offering decent power consumption and good (and sometimes better than good) performance. Since its introduction, the Saltwell family has been surpassed by various ARM parts, but Intel should regain performance competitiveness with its Silvermont range, rolling out over the next six months.
But Atom and the A-series only go so low. If you want to embed processors everywhere—from the smartwatch on your wrist to a heart monitoring patch to keep track of your health—you need to aim lower than the A-series. ARM has such a line: the M-series.
Intel didn't. But it will be much closer soon: Quark. Just as Atom makes Intel's desktop parts look big and hot, Quark makes Atom look big and hot. The Quark system-on-chip will be one fifth the size of Atom and use one tenth the power of Atom. Intel didn't provide too many other details about Quark's specifications. The main things we know are that it will be x86 compatible and initial parts will be built on a 32nm process.
What's striking about Quark, however, is the way that Intel is selling it. ARM is extremely flexible. The ARM company itself doesn't make any processors; it just sells instruction sets and processor designs. Third parties can license these and customize them as they see fit. Instruction set licensees can design the entire chip themselves; licensees of ARM's off-the-shelf designs can use them as-is or customize them in various ways. The designs can be tweaked to improve performance or power usage, and they can have other pieces integrated, such as custom blocks for mobile networking, telephony, graphics, and so on.
Intel's designs, in contrast, have been take-it-or-leave-it affairs. If you buy Atom from Intel, you get the GPU and system-on-chip components that Intel chooses, and if you want to add extra capabilities, they'll have to be separate chips.
Quark changes that. The Quark design is fully synthesizable, with extension points to allow customers to integrate their own functional blocks onto Quark SoCs. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich also said that although Intel would prefer that Quark chips (including those with custom, third-party blocks) be built on Intel's own fabs, Quark will in time be buildable by third parties.
This marks a big change for Intel. Together with its custom fab scheme—the company is selling manufacturing capacity to third parties who want to build chips—Intel is changing its approach to the microchip industry. What it's doing isn't innovative, per se—other companies have offered fabrication services (e.g. TSMC and AMD-spin off Global Foundries) and processor designs (e.g. ARM) for a long time. But Intel has made its riches from being fully integrated: selling Intel-designed chips, built on Intel's production lines.
This approach made sense for the PC market, but it's a much harder sell in the embedded space, where design customization is not just common but expected. Intel isn't as flexible as ARM yet, but with Quark, it's taking a big step closer.