Is This Intel Win the Beginning of the End for ARM Holdings?

"Better late than never" definitely applies to Intel (NAS: INTC) in the mobile processing space. ARM Holdings (NAS: ARMH) and its legion of licensees have been able to reap the rewards as the Chip King has missed the boat, until now.

On last week's earnings conference call, Intel CEO Paul Otellini specifically noted that the company would be seeing an important milestone within a matter of days, as the world's first Intel Medfield Atom-powered smartphone would be launching as a bold step into ARM territory.

As expected, the device turned out to be the Lava Xolo X900.



Here are the device's basic tech specs.


1.6 GHz single-core Intel Atom

Operating System

Google (NAS: GOOG) Android


4.03-inch at 1024 x 600 resolution


Rear: 8-megapixel. Front: 1.3-megapixel.

Onboard storage

16 GB

The X900 also has all the other requisite features of any modern smartphone, like an accelerometer, gyroscope, and capacitive touchscreen, among others.

Who in the world is Lava?
Never heard of Lava? That's not surprising, because Lava is a small Indian gadget maker playing in the, um, Indian market. It's an interesting development that the OEM responsible for arguably one of the most important Intel-powered product launches in recent times is a relative no-name, especially compared with some of Intel's other mobile OEM partners, like Motorola Mobility (NYS: MMI) and Lenovo, both of which should have Atom-powered devices out by year's end.

In all likelihood, Intel launched first with Lava as a relatively safer test bed. That way, if something went horribly wrong, it would be a safe environment for it to stumble in compared with the important domestic market.

I would say that the Medfield Atom is strategically more important than Chipzilla's new Ivy Bridge processors that just launched, since Ivy Bridge is a continuation of Intel's famous tick-tock model (with some major technological advances), while Medfield represents the company's big push into one of the largest growth markets that it's missed thus far.

Is there an app for that?
When it comes to app compatibility, Intel is using a process called binary translation to ensure that apps work on its x86-based Atom. Not all apps will be compatible, though, as some apps will still work only on ARM architecture.

Intel estimates that roughly 90% of apps out of Google's rebranded Google Play storefront will work just fine.

Anandtech recently got its hands on one of these handsets and subsequently put the device through its standard glut of rigorous tests. When it comes to app availability and compatibility, Anandtech found that the software performed admirably. There were a couple of minor hiccups, but the average Android user isn't likely to be able to tell the difference.

Stacking up
The device stood up well in the CPU benchmark tests compared with other popular devices. HTC's new One S and One X, both part of the Taiwanese OEM's new unified rebranding approach, stood up the best against the X900. Notably, what fared the best were the international versions of those devices, which carry NVIDIA's (NAS: NVDA) quad-core ARM-based Tegra 3, while the domestic versions carry Qualcomm Snapdragons for their integrated LTE baseband support.

That's a good sign for Intel in terms of performance and apps.

The ARM advantage
One of the reasons ARM hasn't been afraid of Intel is that ARM chips have always had advantages in power efficiency and consumption, which are of paramount importance in mobile devices where battery life is an important consideration.

The X900 isn't taking home any medals in this department, but it's on par with other Android devices like Samsung's Galaxy S II or Galaxy Nexus. So while the Atom isn't better than ARM chips on power efficiency (no one really expected this), it's certainly competitive.

While I recently sold my ARM shares over concerns of ARM's monetization and valuation, I still think the ARM ecosystem has advantages in momentum and a wider array of choices from numerous chipmakers. Intel is proving that it can be a viable alternative, though, with a competitive offering, so the ARMy should definitely be concerned.

Intel and ARM are battling it out for mobile supremacy in what will be The Next Trillion-Dollar Revolution. One of ARM's licensees is looking to cash in and certainly hopes Intel doesn't start stealing design wins in smartphones. Get the free report.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorEvan Niuholds no position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio.The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm, Intel, and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google, Intel, and NVIDIA and writing puts on NVIDIA. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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