Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

x86 Smartphones - Still Inevitable, and Almost Here!

In a blog-post last November, I wrote about what I think is the inevitability of x86 (or x64) smartphones . I wanted to follow-up on that post with a quick look at what's happened in the five months since, and give a few more reasons why I still think that IA (Intel-architecture) chips will be the brains of most high-end smartphones within five years.

Right now, chips designed to run
ARM's risc-based instruction set (usually just called "ARM" CPUs, even though they're made by a variety of companies) power every high-end smartphone that's in mass production: Apple's iPhone, the HTC Touch and Touch 2 series, Nokia's S60-based assorted models, the about-to-be-released Palm Pre, and the HTC Android handsets (G1 and G2, respectively) all use ARM CPUs. Companies like Marvell and Panasonic make the actual chips themselves. For a time, even Intel licensed ARM, for use in their "StrongARM" processors that powered early Windows Mobile PocketPCs like the Compaq iPaq.

In the past few months, Intel has shown off a prototype smartphone-like device, made by LG, which uses Intel's Moorestown platform. Moorestown (which uses a new "Atom" CPU) is one of many code-names for different chips and chipsets that Intel is working on, a lot of which are targeting the low-power market. While Intel talks a lot about "MIDs" (mobile internet device), these things haven't really taken off, and now Intel has put the circuitry for 3G wireless networks (e.g., cellphone communications) into new low-power system-on-a-chip (SOC) designs. They're showing off Atom processors that can "idle" at 0.65 watts (650 milliwatts), which is still a lot more than an ARM processor, but the next-gen of these chips will (according to Intel) idle at less than 100 milliwatts, which puts them in striking range of ARM chips. According to eWeek , LG will ship an x86 smartphone next year (2010).

So on the one hand, we've got x86 chips from Intel and Via (which makes the low-power-consumption "Nano" cpu) trending to lower and lower power-consumption, and on the other hand, we've got battery technology. Now, I know that batteries have been the dog of tech for a long time - the technological millstone around our mobile gadgets collective necks - but it
is improving. The energy density (measured in Watt-hours per kilogram, or "Wh/Kg") of lithium-ion (Lion) batteries has roughly tripled since 1995. So for a same-weight battery, you get three times more juice. If you look at a graph of the average energy density over time - see the graph on page 4 of "Trends in energy and power supply of mobile phones" (PDF) - it's pretty clear that batteries are following their own very slow version of Moore's law.

There has been a rash of news over the past two or three years about dramatic improvements to the energy density of Lion batteries; most of these have involved changing the makeup of the cathode and anode, or using nanotechnology to change their microscopic "shape". Some of these improvements really qualify as breakthroughs - we're talking three to ten times the current energy density. It looks like lion batteries will, in about five years time, store at least triple the power they do now, and maybe a lot more.

And what's the biggest single advantage of the ARM chips used now? They're power-sippers, using half or less, of the power of even Intel's Moorestown CPU (which isn't even out yet). And the companies that make ARM chips will no doubt try to improve their performance. But we're rapidly approaching the point where a battery the same size as the ones used in smartphones today, will power an x86-based smartphone for just as long as they power ARM chips today, and maybe
close to as long as the ARM chips they'll be competing with. Let's call it 2013 or so. So, what will be the advantage, then, of the x86 smartphone? Some of these I talked about in my other post - things like using existing device-drivers, not needing to re-compile existing desktop software, and the massive base of software developers who write apps for PCs, Macs, and the most popular Linux hardware (which is x86). When x86 is knocking on your market-segment, history has shown that "close" is "close enough".

Another advantage will come from what I think might be a new popular form-factor for computers: I think we'll start to see modular computers, where the CPU and a touch-screen (along with a few tens of GB of storage) are in your smartphone, and then you'll just pop that into a "docking bay" that has a full-sized keyboard, and a 15" monitor along with a bunch more storage (say, a TB or so), which you'll use as a laptop when you want that form factor. The GPU in the smartphone will probably be powerful enough for playing back HD movies, but for gaming, maybe your docking station has a discrete graphics card and another multi-core CPU to beef it up.

In other words - I think it's at least possible (not sure how probable!) that our mobile phones are going to become our computers, and that keyboards, screens, storage and 3D-graphics processing all become periphals. You won't need to "sync" your phone to your PC anymore, because your phone will be the PC. Plug it into your TV's HDMI port to watch movies you've downloaded, or even better, stream them via Bluetooth 3 (assuming you have some Bluetooth-to-HDMI plugged into your TV). If you're on a plane, or waiting in line at the post office (because some things never change), you can watch the same movie on the 3.5" touchscreen. Whatever OS you're running, my guess is it will have two totally different UI "modes", a mobile-centric one, and a "laptop" centric one. So when you're using it as a notebook, you can run Windows 8 (coming in 2012) or your favorite Mac OSX or Linux distro, and when you're out and about, you'll use something more like Android's UI.

Not everything I predicted is going to come to pass exactly like I've laid out here (how I wish I were that good!), but the overall trends of x86 chips needing ever less power, and batteries providing ever more power, are going to eventually mean we're all carrying around Intel or AMD computers and calling them "phones".

*Note - image via Flikr, taken at Intel's developer forum in 2008. My guess is, most of the developers are guys, based on what's on the screen!


djafer said...

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for this interesting post. I am also waiting for my first x86-smartphone. I don't want to buy any of the iphone / google phone around because I know that the x86-smartphone (with mobile WIMAX and WIFI) will be THE thing...

By the way, your whole predictions isn't prediction, it is just reality in my opinion.

The only question is what will happen with ARM? I guess one main scenario is Intel, AMD or Nvidia! (read this http://www.eetimes.com/showArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=O5UALOGBH1IORQE1GHPCKHWATMY32JVN?articleID=221600107)might purchase ARM and use all the know-how of ARM to make an X86 architecture that will be very low power.

Thanks and cheers from Moscow,

PS. Add to it, integrated video projector inside your smartphone (ex: TI-based DLP Pico) and you have a piece of technology aliens might be jealous of!

djafer said...

Well, here is the first x86 smartphone...


Not a big manufacturing company, but still worth a look!

nokia e5 said...

this is eye opening information. I've never heard of this phone before.