Flashback: A look back at Intel smartphones and tablets
While ARM and Qualcomm have released some great mobile GPUs, we kind of wish Nvidia would start making smartphone chips again or at least license their GPU designs. AMD is slipping its toes again, so why shouldn’t Nvidia? Now we can only Bring back memories of Nvidia phones. The GPU maker isn’t the only one to drop out of the race either, though. Texas Instruments It was quite common at some point, too.
Then there is Intel. Intel remains the dominant supplier of laptop, desktop, and server CPUs, and Intel’s time as a mobile chipset maker has left no such legacy. It really started just fine, and oddly enough, it started with ARM.
Intel has licensed and built the ARMv5 instruction set to create Xscale. The first chips were the PXA210 and PXA250, running at 200MHz and 400MHz, respectively, and were aimed at PDAs (from a modern perspective we call them “smartphones without the phone part”).
Intel was targeting high-end PDAs and in 2002 this meant small devices that could decode video and MP3 files and have features such as wireless connectivity. Here are some interesting numbers about these chips:
- The PXA210 costs $17, the PXA250 $39.20 (2002 dollars)
- The PXA250 consumed 256 MW at 200 MHz and 411 MW at 300 MHz
- The PXA250 was measured at 17x17mm and came in a 256-pin spherical reticle array, the PXA210 was cut to 225 pins (using a 16-bit data bus instead of a 32-bit)
The PXA250 powers the likes of the Samsung i700. This device has cellular connectivity (2G with GPRS data), a 240 x 320 pixel resistive touch screen, a single VGA camera and an MMC card slot. It ran the Windows PocketPC 2003 Phone version (which had nothing to do with the later Windows Phone).
The Samsung i300 is an interesting device. It is not clear that the PDA was running Windows Mobile 2003 SE Smartphone. It was a chunky thing, 20mm thick, and had plenty of storage space (at the time) – a small 3GB hard drive.
The Samsung i750 was similar to a phone too, but unlike the i300 it had a touchscreen. Small 2.6 inch touch screen, but still steady. While the sliding design lets you hide the keyboard, the interface is decked out with an impressive number of hardware buttons. The i750 was thicker at 22mm, but it didn’t have a microdriver. Instead I used one of the new microSD cards for additional storage.
Motorola had some weird designs from that era. The Motorola A1200 was fairly typical with a transparent cover that protected the resistive touch screen (and prevents accidental touches). This screen was somewhat smaller than the i750’s 2.4-inch screen.
The Motorola Q8 went after the demographic BlackBerry with a QWERTY bottom screen (2.4 inches horizontally). There were also foldable phones like the A910 – not as sharp as the Razr, this phone that’s interesting is that it eschewed Microsoft’s dominance and ran a Linux-based operating system instead, the E680 was another example of a Linux phone.
O2 XDA devices belong to this list as well. For example, the O2 XDA II had a “huge” 3.5-inch screen (still 240 x 320 pixels). There was also the i-mate PDA2, a fairly standard device. For a whimsical design, check out the tiny laptop that was the Qtek 9000.
By the way, do they feel like they have something in common? By the XScale chipset we mean. That’s right, they were all made by HTC in their ODM days.
BlackBerry also used the XScale chipset – it appeared on some of the most popular models such as the BB Pearl 8100, Pearl Flip 8220, Curve 8300, and more.
Palm has also used XScale chips, running mostly on the company’s PalmOS, although there are Windows Mobile devices like the Treo 500v.
In 2006, just four years after its release, XScale was sold to Marvell, putting an end to the Intel ARM adventure.
Well, now let’s talk about the phones you were thinking of when you started reading – Android phones that were powered by Intel Atom chips.
Motorola was one of the first to adopt the likes of the RAZR i in 2012. It ran on an Atom Z2460 with two x86 CPU cores (2GHz, 32-bit) and a PowerVR 544MP2 GPU.
This was a fairly typical setup – Intel CPUs were designed for large machines with active cooling, so reducing that to a smartphone form factor was tricky. The company was only able to fit two CPU cores, but they were fast – they had some of the best single-core performance you could get at the time.
But since there were only two of them, the multi-core performance was lower than that of the quad-core ARM designs ( the first Also appeared in 2012). Atoms supported Hyperthreading, meaning each CPU could run two hardware threads simultaneously, but it wasn’t as good as having twice as many cores.
Two years later, Asus used the same generation of Atom chips in its first-ever Zenfones. These were still using the slightly improved Z2500 series chips from 2013 (still 32nm, though).
The next generation, the Atom Z3000 series, has arrived with quad-core CPUs, thanks in part to the drop to the 22nm node. These were used in the likes of the stylish Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe and Zenfone Zoom ZX550. As discussed in a previous article, Zoom had a file 28-84mm telephoto lens With smooth zoom. This technology was lost for a few years, but it’s starting to come back.
Intel chips have appeared in the converted Asus PadFone series, too – it can slot into a tablet dock when you want a bigger screen. There was also the confusingly named Fonepad 7, a tablet with phone functionality (unlike the PadFone, this can’t turn into anything). However, Transformer Pad can turn into an Android laptop.
Dell also had convertible tablets, such as the Venue 10 7000. The thick cylindrical part on one side could go into the base of the keyboard. The smaller Venue 8 7000 was intended for standalone use, but it also had an unusual design with a large front speaker. These were interesting follow-ups to the traditional 7th and 8th place.
In 2015, Acer released the Predator 8 – as you can tell by its design, this was a gaming tablet. It is powered by the Atom x7-Z8700, which features four CPU cores (no threading) and an upgraded Intel GPU.
More casual were the likes of Lenonvo’s Yoga Tablet 2, which is designed for home multimedia consumption with its built-in kickstand and powerful speakers.
The Nokia N1 from 2014 looks very ordinary on the surface, but what made it extraordinary was that it was manufactured by Microsoft shortly after it acquired Nokia’s hardware and services division. It’s Android too, although that’s a little less strange once you consider that Microsoft released their first Android-powered Nokia devices a few months ago (the Nokia X series).
The combination of an Intel CPU and Microsoft Windows is so common that it has an alias, Wintel. So where are the Windows and Intel-powered tablets? Well, Microsoft has been trying to break free from its dependence on Intel (and x86 CPUs in general) by developing Windows RT running on ARM. This brought us boards like the Nokia Lumia 2520.
There have been some Atom tablets that run Windows as well, since Allview didn’t quite subscribe to the “Windows on ARM” thing. One was also some kind of adapter — it ran Windows 10, which made more sense than trying to get a laptop experience out of Android 4.4 (we’re looking at you, Asus). Allview made the KitKat tablet (Viva i10G), although thankfully it didn’t go the converter route with it.
There are many Atom-powered tablets – from Xiaomi, Samsung, HP, Micromax and others.
Here is a device we did not expect to choose for the Intel chip – the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45. Yes, a smartwatch. Expensive price at the time, $1,200 / €1,100 for the 41mm model at launch. It had a titanium case, a ceramic bezel around the 1.39-inch AMOLED display (covered in sapphire glass), and an Intel Atom Z3000 chipset running Android Wear OS 2.1. By the way, the price we mentioned was just the starting point slap enough diamonds on this pup and it can easily grow to 6 figures.
The last device we want to mention is this beauty – the Nokia 9000 Communicator. It didn’t technically use an Intel chip, but instead was powered by an AMD-made 486 It operates at 33MHz. Could you Read more About the power of this connections in a previous post on Flashback.
Nokia 9000 Communicator (image credit)
As you can tell, things dried up around 2014/2015. Attempts to mainstream adoption failed and only exotic designs were converted to using Intel chips. The company eventually stopped making Atom chips for smartphones and tablets, and the manufacturers moved on anyway.
Intel is completely out of the mobile game now, but has had bigger issues to worry about in recent years (its foundry progress stalled, giving TSMC the lead). Android still supports x86, although you’re not likely to see this in action. Windows 11 can run Android apps, even those meant for ARM devices, but this is enabled by emulation – Intel Bridge technology, developed by (you guessed it) Intel.
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