Intel vs. ARM: Faster Chips, Benchmarking Debate Highlight Competition

TSMC and Globalfoundries are preparing to make faster, smaller ARM chips, while reports of Intel overtaking ARM in performance were debated.

The growing competition between ARM and Intel in the booming mobile device space won't be dying down anytime soon.

Officials with semiconductor makers Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) and Globalfoundries reportedly said the firms are gearing up their facilities to begin building 20-nanometer mobile chips by 2014, a move that would mean even faster, higher performing and more energy-efficient systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for such devices as smartphones and tablets.

It also will mean ARM-based chips that can hit speeds of up to 3GHz; the fastest ARM SoCs now reach about 2.3GHz.

At the same time, there was debate about a benchmark that ABI Research said showed Intel's dual-core "Clover Trail+" Atom chip outperformed ARM-based mobile device chips from Samsung, Qualcomm and Nvidia. The claim, based on the AnTuTu benchmark, surprised some industry observers, particularly given that Clover Trail+—the Atom Z2580—is based on the 5-year-old "Medfield" architecture, which is set to be replaced by the upcoming "Silvermont" architecture.

However, Jim McGregor, an analyst with Tirias Research who was writing in EE Times July 10, said the AnTuTu benchmark was faulty and an outlier when compared with other benchmarks testing the chips. In addition, in a July 12 follow-up blog on EE Times, McGregor said that, when using revised AnTuTu calculations, the ARM chips outperform the Atom SoC.

"Suddenly, the battle between smartphone processors looks much different than all the hype that was floating around because of the AnTuTu benchmark," he wrote. "It's clear that the ARM processors still hold a significant advantage over the Intel processors, whether you include the new AnTuTu scores or just eliminate them completely from the evaluation."

The upcoming faster ARM SoCs and the debate about the AnTuTu benchmark illustrate the increasingly tense competition between ARM and Intel. ARM, which licenses its chip designs to chip makers, dominates the mobile device space, where most smartphones and tablets run on ARM-designed chips.

Intel is looking to make inroads into the space, particularly with its low-power Atom platform. The chip maker in May introduced its upcoming Silvermont architecture, which officials said will offer better performance and greater energy efficiency than Medfield, and will exceed anything that ARM and its partners could offer.

"We're breaking the myth that ARM can do things that Intel cannot," Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, and Intel's chief product officer, said during the Silvermont event.

TSMC officials have said that shrinking ARM SoCs from the current 28nm to 20nm could bring up to a 30 percent performance improvement, a 25 percent reduction in power consumption, and 1.9 times more transistor density, according to a report in Android Authority.

For its part, Intel is expected to be offering 14nm Atom chips later this year and into 2014.

The benchmarking debate is an indication that there will be a lot of eyes on the Intel-vs.-ARM competition. The claim that an Intel Atom chip is much faster and more powerful than its ARM counterpart generated a lot of attention and news reports.

However, Tirias' McGregor outlined concerns he had with the AnTuTu benchmark, including issues around the way compilers were used in the testing. In addition, it is just generally difficult to do, given these SoCs include much more than CPUs, but also dedicated systems like memory, I/O, networks and communications modems. The SoCs' performance also can be impacted by how they're integrated with the smartphone's other components, from software to networking, he wrote.

In response, AnTuTu on July 10 issued revisions to the benchmark, which dropped the overall scores for the Intel chip, according to McGregor. AnTuTu officials also told McGregor that new testing standards will be issued in August.