ARM launches attack on Intel's netbook stranglehold

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British firm aims to weaken Intel's grip on the netbook market with new 2GHz Cortex A9 processor - and it's not stopping there

British chip designer ARM is launching an outright attack on Intel with the launch of a 2GHz processor aimed at everything from netbooks to servers.

ARM claims the 40nm Cortex A9 MPCore processor represents a shift in strategy for the company, which has until now concentrated on low-power processors for mobile devices.

"In the past we've very much focused on wireless - it's been all about power efficiency," Eric Schom, ARM's vice president of marketing told PC Pro. "In this case we've taken off the handcuffs and made performance our primary goal."

It's head and shoulders above anything Intel can deliver today

In the consumer market, ARM is pitching the Cortex A9 directly against Intel's Atom, claiming the processor offers five times the power while only drawing comparable amounts of energy. "It's head and shoulders above anything Intel can deliver today," Schom boasts.

Schom claims the processor's physical size has helped reduce power consumption. "If you just look at an [Intel] Atom by itself, our processor is a third of the size, so the amount of silicon it consumes is significantly less and that reduces cost," Schom said.

ARM also claims its processors will be better for manufacturers and consumers, because it won't place restrictions on netbook specifications in the same way that Intel does with Atom. "It [Intel] has restrictions on screen size and USB ports and other artificial limits - we won't do that," he said. "We're allowing our diverse partnerships to go and innovate."

Where's the Windows?

We've had conversations with Microsoft and you can imagine what they entail

The one huge disadvantage ARM faces is that its processors are incompatible with Windows. Although Linux was the operating system of choice when netbooks first burst on to the scene, a combination of consumer confusion and Microsoft's marketing muscle has driven alternative OSes back to the fringes.

ARM admits it's a problem. "We have work to do - that's absolutely true," Schom said. "We've had conversations with Microsoft and you can imagine what they entail."

Nevertheless, netbook manufacturers running the ARM processor will be forced to adopt an alternative such as Google's Android, Windows CE or even Windows Mobile. The forthcoming Google Chrome OS is also slated to support ARM processors, although Schom claims there has been no specific discussions with Google over netbooks based on the Cortex A9.

Long-term plans

Netbooks aren't the only devices ARM wants to see running the Cortex A9. In the consumer market, set-top boxes and televisions are two other potential outlets, while the company's also keen to push the chips into back office hardware such as servers. The Cortex A9 should be finalised by the end of this year, with production samples starting to arrive at the beginning of 2010.

And what of the future? Is ARM planning further forays into a PC market that has long been dominated by only two companies: Intel and AMD? "They [Intel and AMD] are coming down and we're going up," said Schom. "We aspire to take our technology up further and further."

The duopoly had better keep one eye on the rear-view mirror.

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