Intel is turning to a Chinese chip maker with a history in ARM processors to help it expand deeper into the highly competitive low-end Android tablet market.
Intel officials on May 27 announced a partnership with Rockchip in which the companies will build a new family of mobile SoFIA systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) that will feature Intel’s x86 Atom platform and its 3G wireless modem technology. The Intel-branded processors will help the giant chip maker fill a hole in its planned SoFIA lineup that initially included a dual-core 3G version expected to hit the market later this year, and a quad-core 4G LTE version scheduled for the first half of 2015.
The quad-core 3G SoCs built with Rockchip also will come in the first half of next year, according to Intel officials. Both Intel and Rockchip will be responsible for selling them to their respective customers.
No financial details about the deal were released.
“This product really is meant to sit in there [between the other two versions] as a quad-core with 3G,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in a conference call with analysts and journalists following the announcement. “It’s purely targeting the right product with the right features at the right cost that is really critical for this market.”
It also will help extend Intel’s reach into the highly coveted Chinese market, Krzanich said.
“We looked at this purely as access and speed to those markets,” he said.
Intel was one of a number of large and established tech vendors—including Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett-Packard—that were slow to respond to the rapidly changing computing environment over the past few years as consumers and business users began migrating to tablets and smartphones. Now, the bulk of mobile devices in the market are powered by low-power SoCs designed by ARM and made by the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung, and run Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS mobile operating systems.
Intel in recent years has been aggressive in pushing the performance and driving down the energy consumption of its x86 products, particularly the low-power x86-based Atom chips. Last year, Intel introduced the Silvermont microarchitecture that officials said met or exceeded ARM’s offerings in terms of performance and energy efficiency.
In addition, Krzanich, since becoming CEO in May 2013, has put even more of Intel’s focus on the mobile space. However, the company has struggled to get its chips into a wide range of systems, though the company expects 40 million Intel-based tablets to sell this year, compared with 10 million last year.
Intel Partners With ARM Chip Maker Rockchip on Tablet Products
The deal with Rockchip is aimed at accelerating the adoption of Intel chips by device OEMs, according to officials. Intel introduced the SoFIA road map last year; the products will be the first to include the wireless modems on the chip. Currently, Intel sells chips with discrete modems, but integrating the modems onto the chip will help device makers create smaller and cheaper tablets and smartphones, which are increasingly popular in such emerging markets as China, India and Brazil.
The new SoFIA chips—as with those already in the works—will be manufactured by contract chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC), though Intel reportedly plans to begin manufacturing SoFIA SoCs at its own facilities in 2016.
Intel is also investing a lot of money and energy in China. In April, the company announced a $100 million fund and plans to build a design center in China designed to fuel the adoption of Intel chips in smart devices, such as smartphones, tablets, wearable computers and new PC form factors.
“The China technology ecosystem will be instrumental in the transformation of computing,” Krzanich said at the Intel Developer Forum in China. “To help drive global innovation, Intel will stay focused on delivering leadership products and technologies that not only allow our partners to rapidly innovate, but also deliver on the promise that ‘if it computes, it does it best with Intel’—from the edge device to the cloud, and everything in between.”
Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, said in a note that the deal with Rockchip makes sense for both companies.
“This is a win-win strategy, giving Intel a massively expanded sphere to sell chips to (via Rockchip) in the rapidly growing low-end tablet market, primarily Android-based,” Gold wrote. “This gives Intel a better ability to compete against the ARM ecosystem.”
For Rockchip, the deal gives it “a huge competitive advantage against its many rivals in the fabless semiconductor space who don’t have the ability to access the huge amounts of strategic IP available from Intel, as well as the potential for Rockchip to use Intel’s foundry services for customized designs (which also benefits Intel by filling its fabs).”