Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

With Samsung Win, Intel Has a Modem Chip for LTE Phones and Tablets

Chipmaker Intel today took the unusual step of letting the world know that it has a chip inside a new consumer product.

It’s the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 (reviewed by AllThingsD’s Bonnie Cha), and with its release in Asia and Europe, Intel said it marks the beginning of a new era in its frustrating history with chips for wireless phones and tablets.

In the LTE wireless version of the tablet, there is an Intel XMM 7160 platform, and it is Intel’s first multi-mode wireless modem, capable of communicating with 2G, 3G and 4G wireless data networks. It sends a strong signal about Intel’s intentions on the wireless phone front in two ways. For one thing, it’s Intel’s first multi-mode chip. For another, it’s only the second such chip put out by anyone. Qualcomm was the first.

Building a chip of this type is a difficult engineering challenge because there’s the issue of building something that can talk to whatever flavor of wireless network it happens to encounter, with the added challenge of giving it the ability to switch between those flavors on the fly without any interruption in service. You wouldn’t like a phone that drops a call just because you drove out of the range of a 4G network and into the countryside where only older networks may be present. The chip is compatible with 15 LTE bands simultaneously, and can also handle voice over LTE. Add to that the sticky wickets of testing with multiple carriers, and it amounts to an honest-to-goodness tough nut, now cracked.

It also amounts to a victory for Intel in another way: For years, Intel has struggled with being well behind many rivals in the business to supply chips to vendors of wireless handsets and tablets. Essentially all of the world’s smartphones and most of its tablets run on microprocessors based on designs from ARM, the British chip design firm. Qualcomm, Broadcom and Nvidia are examples of companies in the ARM camp. Apple is designing its A5, A6 and A7 chips based on ARM designs, which Samsung then manufactures.

While Intel’s win here is for a modem, and not a microprocessor — Marvell, another vendor in the ARM camp, won Samsung’s business in this case — it represents another track by which Intel plans to attack the wireless business. It has promised more modem chips like this in 2014.


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