While ARM and Qualcomm have released some great mobile GPUs, we’d love for Nvidia to start making smartphone chipsets again or at least license GPU designs. AMD put its toes back in, why wouldn’t Nvidia? For now, we can only reminisce about Nvidia-powered phones. The GPU maker isn’t the only one to drop out of the race either, Texas Instruments was also very popular at one point.
And then there’s Intel. Still the dominant supplier of laptop, desktop and server CPUs, Intel’s time as a chipset maker for mobile devices has left no such legacy. However, it started well, and strangely enough, it started with ARM.
Intel licensed and built on the ARMv5 instruction set to create xscale. The first chips were the PXA210 and PXA250, which ran at 200MHz and 400MHz respectively, and they targeted PDAs, Personal Digital Assistants (from a modern perspective, we’d call them “smartphones without a phone portion”).
Intel was aiming for high-end PDAs, and in 2002 that meant pocket-sized devices that could decode video and MP3s and had features like wireless connectivity. Here are some interesting numbers about these chips:
- the PXA210 was $17, the PXA250 was $39.20 (in 2002 dollars)
- the PXA250 consumed 256mW at 200MHz and 411mW at 300Mhz
- the PXA250 measures 17x17mm and came in a 256-pin ball grid array, the PXA210 was reduced to 225 pins (using a 16-bit data bus instead of 32-bit)
The PXA250 powered the likes of the Samsung i700. It did have cellular connectivity (2G with GPRS data), a 240 x 320px resistive touchscreen, a single VGA camera and an MMC card slot. It ran Windows PocketPC 2003 Phone edition (which has very little to do with the Windows Phone that came later).
The Samsung i300 is an interesting one. Obviously not a PDA, it ran on Windows Mobile 2003 SE Smartphone. It was a sturdy thing, 20mm thick, and it had a large (for its time) amount of storage space – a 3GB microdrive.
The Samsung i750 also looked like a phone, but unlike the i300 it had a touchscreen. A small 2.6-inch resistive touchscreen, but still. While the slider design allows you to hide the keyboard, the front was adorned with a surprising number of hardware buttons. The i750 was even thicker at 22mm, but had no microdrive. it used one of those newfangled microSD cards for extra storage.
Samsung i700 • Samsung i300 • Samsung i750
Motorola had some curious designs from that era. The Motorola A1200 was quite typical with a transparent flip cover that protected the resistive touchscreen (and prevented accidental touches). This screen was somehow smaller than the 2.4″ i750.
The Motorola Q8 went after the BlackBerry demographic with a hardware QWERTY under the display (2.4″ landscape). There were also flip phones like the A910 – not as sharp as a Razr, this one is interesting because it has the Microsoft- avoided hegemony and instead ran a Linux-based operating system. The E680 was another example of a Linux phone.
Motorola A1200 • Motorola Q8 • Motorola A910 • Motorola E680
O2 XDA devices also belong on this list. For example, the O2 XDA II had a “huge” 3.5-inch screen (still 240 x 320px). There was also the i-mate PDA2, a fairly standard device. For an eccentric design, check out the small laptop that was the Qtek 9000.
By the way, do they feel like they have something in common? Next to the XScale chipsets we mean. That’s right, they were all made by HTC in its ODM days.
O2 XDA II • i-mate PDA2 • Qtek 9000
BlackBerry also used XScale chips – they were used on some of the most popular models like the BB Pearl 8100, Pearl Flip 8220, the Curve 8300 and more.
BlackBerry Pearl 8100 • BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220 • BlackBerry Curve 8300
Palm also used XScale chips, which mostly ran the company’s PalmOS, although there were also Windows Mobile devices like the Treo 500v.
Palm Centro • Palm Treo 500v • Palm Treo 650 • Palm Treo 680
In 2006, just four years after its launch, XScale was sold to Marvell, ending Intel’s ARM adventure.
Okay, now let’s talk about the phones that came to your mind when you started reading – those Android phones that were powered by Intel Atom chips.
For example, Motorola was an early adopter with the RAZR i in 2012. It ran on an Atom Z2460 with a single x86 CPU cores (2GHz, 32-bit, with Hyperthreading for two hardware threads) and a PowerVR 544MP2 GPU.
Motorola RAZR and XT890
This was a pretty typical setup – Intel CPUs are designed for larger devices with active cooling, so it was a challenge to bring that down to a smartphone form factor. The company could only put in one and later 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, the multi-core performance was lower than the quad-core ARM designs (the first of which also appeared in 2012). Atoms did support Hyperthreading, i.e. each CPU could run two hardware threads at once, but it wasn’t as good as having twice as many cores.
Two years later, Asus used the same generation of Atom chips in the very first Zenfones. These still used slightly improved Z2500 series chips from 2013 (still 32nm).
Asus Zenfone 4 (2014) • Asus Zenfone 5 A500CG (2014) • Asus Zenfone 6 A600CG (2014)
The next generation, the Atom Z3000 series, did move to quad-core CPUs, thanks in part to the move to a 22nm node. These were used in the stylish Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe and the Zenfone Zoom ZX550. As discussed in a previous article, the Zoom featured a smooth zoom 28-84mm periscope telephoto lens. This technology was lost for a few years, but is making a comeback.
Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe ZE551ML • Asus Zenfone Zoom ZX550
Intel chips were also featured in Asus’ transforming PadFone series – these could be placed in a tablet dock if you wanted a bigger screen. There was also the confusing name of Fonepad 7, a tablet with phone functionality (unlike the PadFone, it couldn’t change anything). However, the Transformer Pad can turn into an Android laptop.
Asus PadFone mini (Intel) • PadFone mini 4G (Intel) • Fonepad 7 (2014) • Transformer Pad TF103C
Dell also had transformative tablets, such as the Venue 10 7000. The thick cylindrical section on one side could fit into a keyboard dock. The smaller Venue 8 7000 was intended for stand-alone use, but also had an unusual design with a large front-firing speaker. These were interesting successors to the traditional Venue 7 and 8.
Dell Venue 10 7000 • Dell Venue 8 7000 • Dell Venue 7 • Dell Venue 8
In 2015, Acer released the Predator 8 – as you can see from the design, this was a gaming tablet. It was powered by the Atom x7-Z8700, with four CPU cores (no Hyperthreading) and an Intel-developed GPU.
Much more casual were Lenonvo’s Yoga Tablet 2, which is designed for home multimedia use with its built-in kickstand and powerful speakers.
Acer Predator 8 • Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10.1
The 2014 Nokia N1 looks pretty normal at first glance and it is, but what made it unusual is that it was made by Microsoft shortly after it took over Nokia’s Devices & Services division. It also runs on Android, although that’s less strange when you consider that Microsoft released the first Android-powered Nokia devices (the Nokia X series) a few months earlier.
The combination of an Intel CPU and Microsoft Windows is so common that it is nicknamed Wintel. So where are the Intel-powered Windows tablets? Well, Microsoft tried to break free from its reliance on Intel (and x86 CPUs in general) by developing Windows RT that ran on ARM. This brought us slates like the Nokia Lumia 2520.
There were also some Atom-powered Windows tablets, as Allview didn’t quite get into the whole “Windows on ARM” thing. One was also a bit of a transformer – it ran on Windows 10, which made a lot more sense than trying to pull a laptop experience out of Android 4.4 (we’re looking at you, Asus). Allview did make a KitKat tablet (the Viva i10G), though thankfully it didn’t go the transformer route.
Allview Wi8G • Allview Wi10N PRO • Allview Viva i10G
There are many more Atom-powered tablets – from Xiaomi, Samsung, HP, Micromax and others.
Xiaomi Mi Pad 2 • Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 P5210 • HP Pro Slate 10 EE G1 • Micromax Canvas Tab P690
Here’s a device we didn’t expect to pick an Intel chip — the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45. Yes, a smartwatch. An expensive one, $1,200 / €1,100 for the 41mm model at launch. It had a titanium case and a ceramic bezel around the 1.39-inch AMOLED display (covered with sapphire glass). And an Intel Atom Z3000 series chipset running Android Wear OS 2.1. Oh, by the way, that price we mentioned was just the starting point. Smash enough diamonds on this puppy and he can easily grow to 6 figures.
Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45
The last device we want to mention is this beauty – the Nokia 9000 Communicator. It didn’t technically use an Intel chip, but was instead powered by an AMD-made 486 runs at 33MHz. You can read more about this communication powerhouse in a previous Flashback post.
Nokia 9000 Communicator (image credit)
As you can see, it dried up around 2014/2015. Attempts at mainstream adoption failed and only eccentric designs were relegated to using Intel chips. The company eventually stopped making Atom chips for smartphones and tablets, and manufacturers moved on anyway.
Intel still had its modem division until it sold it to Apple in 2019. Apple itself fell off the Mac computers with the introduction of the Apple M chipsets.
Intel is now completely out of the mobile game, but it had bigger issues to worry about in recent years (foundry progress had stalled, leaving TSMC in charge). Android still supports x86, although you probably won’t see this in action. Windows 11 can run Android apps, even those intended for ARM devices, but that’s made possible by emulation – the Intel Bridge technology, which was developed by (you guessed it) Intel.