Despite CES 2008 being all about brand new displays and TVs, we got some of the most interesting information at the show from Intel, about microprocessors.

All smartphones, including the iPhone, suffer from poor performance.  These devices all run highly integrated System on a Chip (SoC) designs, where power consumption matters first and foremost, with performance being a distant second consideration.  Software compatibility is also a major concern, as the entire world of mobile and smart phones run on a tremendous number of incompatible platforms.  A single software application or game must be at least recompiled if not re-written for virtually every single device it's going to go on. 

In stark contrast to all of this is the PC; performance is job number one, and only recently has power consumption even begun to factor into the equation.  Software compatibility is also ensured thanks to the fact that the x86 instruction set is the de-facto standard in the PC industry. 

The problem is that PC system architectures don't translate well into small, ultra low power devices like smartphones.  What's necessary is a ground-up design, aimed specifically at those markets.  Intel realized this early on in the evolution of mobile processors. In order to make a truly mobile PC, Intel could not simply repackage a desktop/server CPU, it needed something specifically designed for the mobile market.  Thus the first Centrino platform was born, and now five years later, we're dealing with a very mature platform.

The need for even more powerful, even more mobile devices is now upon us.  The demands we have on our smartphones are ever increasing, we want the functionality of a notebook, but in something the size of an iPhone.  It's time for another revolutionary change, akin to what Centrino was for notebooks.  Intel learned its lesson with Centrino, which became a very successful brand for the company.  Now Intel hopes to go above and beyond what Centrino ever was, for ultra mobile devices.

It all started with devices like the Portable Media Center and the Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC), devices designed to bring certain features of your PC with you on the go, without the bulk of a notebook.  The interface was also supposed to be mobile optimized; just as Microsoft discovered with Media Center and as Intel did with Centrino, in order to make an ultra mobile device work, it could not simply use the same interface as a desktop OS - it needed something new and specialized. 

Unfortunately, these devices failed miserably.  They were either too big, too expensive, too slow or too impractical to use.  The reasons for their failure were simple: the hardware wasn't fast enough and the software was too slow.  UMPCs were the perfect example; most of them run Vista, but they don't have the hardware to run it fast enough to be usable and since they use components designed for much larger notebooks, battery life suffers greatly.  The level of integration on the silicon side is also a problem; these UMPCs are far too big. 

Apple realized these problems early on, and didn't jump on the UMPC bandwagon.  Instead, it created a mobile-optimized OS and stuck it on a smartphone.  The end result was that the iPhone was born with the most elegant smartphone interface onthe market.  However, Apple used mostly off the shelf components for the iPhone, so despite its speedy interface, the phone itself could still benefit from a faster processor.  The iPhone is also Apple's only non-x86 product in its current lineup, meaning that software portability between the iPhone/iPod, the Apple TV and its Macs isn't ideal.

Intel came to its senses around the same time as Apple, but instead of building a killer device with the components available on the market today, Intel set out to do for ultra mobile devices what it did for notebooks with Centrino.  The platform is codenamed Menlow, and we finally have more details on it. 

Meet Menlow
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  • defter - Thursday, January 10, 2008 - link

    Intel had a low-power RISC core called StrongARM several years ago, but they decided to sell that...

    It seems that Intel feels it's important that small mobile devices use the same instruction set as desktop PCs.
    Reply

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