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Flashback: a look back at Intel-powered smartphones and tablets

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ARM and Qualcomm have released some great mobile GPUs, but I’m hoping Nvidia will resume making smartphone chipsets, or at least license their GPU designs. AMD has stepped in again, but why shouldn’t Nvidia? For now, we can only recall Nvidia-powered phones. His GPU maker wasn’t the only one to drop out of the race. Texas Instruments was also very popular for a time.

And then there’s Intel. Intel, which has remained a major supplier of CPUs for laptops, desktops, and servers, left no such legacy in its era as a chipset maker for his mobile devices. But it started fine. Oddly enough, it started on ARM.

Intel licensed the ARMv5 instruction set and built on top of it xscaleThe first chips were the PXA210 and PXA250, which ran at 200MHz and 400MHz respectively and were aimed at PDAs and personal digital assistants (what we call “smartphones without the phone part” in modern terms).

Intel was targeting high-end PDAs, which in 2002 meant pocket-sized devices that could decode video and MP3, and had features like wireless connectivity. Here are some interesting numbers about these chips.

  • $17 for the PXA210 and $39.20 for the PXA250 (in 2002 dollars)
  • The PXA250 dissipated 256mW at 200MHz and 411mW at 300MHz.
  • The PXA250 measures 17x17mm and comes in a 256-pin ball grid array, while the PXA210 has been reduced to 225 pins (by using a 16-bit data bus instead of a 32-bit).

The PXA250 was installed in the Samsung i700 and others. It had cell connectivity (2G with GPRS data), a 240 x 320 pixel resistive touch display, a single VGA camera and an MMC card slot. It ran Windows PocketPC 2003 Phone Edition (which has little to do with the later Windows Phone).

The Samsung i300 is an interesting one. Obviously not a PDA, but this worked on a Windows Mobile 2003 SE smartphone. It was chunky, 20 mm thick, and had (for the time) a lot of storage (3 GB microdrive).

The Samsung i750 also resembled a phone, but unlike the i300, it had a touchscreen. It’s a tiny 2.6-inch resistive touchscreen, but that’s no different. The slider design allowed us to hide the keypad, but the front was adorned with a surprising number of hardware buttons. The i750 he was even thicker at 22mm but without the microdrive. Instead, he used one of his new microSD cards for additional storage.

samsung i700
samsung i300
samsung i750

Samsung i700 • Samsung i300 • Samsung i750

Motorola had some interesting designs from that era. The Motorola A1200 was typical with a clear flip cover that protected the resistive touch display (and prevented accidental touches). This display was slightly smaller than his 2.4-inch i750.

The Motorola Q8 chased the BlackBerry demographic with hardware QWERTY (2.4-inch landscape) under the display. There were also flip phones like the A910. The E680 was another example of a Linux phone.

Motorola A1200
Motorola Q8
Motorola A910
Motorola E680

Motorola A1200 • Motorola Q8 • Motorola A910 • Motorola E680

O2 XDA devices are also included in this list. The O2 XDA II, for example, had a “huge” 3.5 inch display (it’s still 240 x 320 pixels). There was also an i-mate PDA2 which is a fairly standard device. For an unusual design, check out our tiny laptop. It was a Qtek 9000.

By the way, do you feel that they have something in common? In addition to the XScale chipset we mean. That’s right, they were all made by HTC during the ODM era.

Eye Mate PDA2
Qtek 9000

O2 XDA II • i-mate PDA2 • Qtek 9000

BlackBerry also uses the XScale chip, which powers some of its most popular models such as the BB Pearl 8100, Pearl Flip 8220 and Curve 8300.

blackberry pearl 8100
BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220
BlackBerry Curve 8300

BlackBerry Pearl 8100 • BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220 • BlackBerry Curve 8300

Palm also used XScale chips, and although there were Windows Mobile devices like the Treo 500v, they mostly ran the company’s PalmOS.

Palm Centro
palm treo 500v
palm treo 650
palm treo 680

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 adventures.

Now let’s talk about the mobile phone you had in mind when you started reading the book. It’s his Android phone with an Intel Atom chip.

Motorola was an early adopter, such as the RAZR i in 2012. It ran on an Atom Z2460 with 2 x86 CPU cores (2GHz, 32-bit) and a PowerVR 544MP2 GPU.

Motorola RAZR i XT890

Motorola RAZR i XT890

This was a fairly typical setup. Intel CPUs were designed for large devices with active cooling, so narrowing them down to a smartphone form factor proved difficult. The company only allowed him two CPU cores, but they were fast. It had some of the best single-core performance of its time.

However, since there were only two of them, the multicore performance was below quad-core ARM designs (the first ARM also came out in 2012). Atoms supported hyperthreading. That is, each CPU he could run two hardware threads at the same time, but not so much that he actually had twice as many cores.

Two years later, Asus used the same generation Atom chip in its first-ever Zenfones. These were still using the Z2500 series chips which were slightly improved from 2013 (but still at 32nm).

Asus Zenfone 4 (2014)
Asus Zenfone 5 A500CG (2014)
Asus Zenfone 6 A600CG (2014)

Asus Zenfone 4 (2014) • Asus Zenfone 5 A500CG (2014) • Asus Zenfone 6 A600CG (2014)

The next-generation Atom Z3000 series has moved to quad-core CPUs, partly because it dropped to the 22nm node. These were used in things like the stylish Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe and Zenfone Zoom ZX550. As discussed in a previous article, Zoom featured a 28-84mm periscope telephoto lens with smooth zoom. This technology was lost for several years, but has been revived.

Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe ZE551ML
Asus Zenfone Zoom ZX550

Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe ZE551ML Asus Zenfone Zoom ZX550

Intel chips were also featured in Asus’ transformative PadFone series. These could be plugged into the tablet dock when a larger screen was needed. There was also his Fonepad 7 with a confusing name. It’s a tablet with phone functionality (unlike the PadFone, which turned out to be nothing). However, the Transformer Pad could become an Android laptop.

Asus PadFone mini (Intel)
Asus PadFone mini 4G (Intel)
Asus Fonepad 7 (2014)
Asus Trans Pad TF103C

Asus PadFone mini (Intel) • PadFone mini 4G (Intel) • Fonepad 7 (2014) • Transformer Pad TF103C

Dell also had variant tablets like the Venue 10 7000. A thick cylindrical piece on one side could be plugged into the keyboard dock. While his smaller Venue 8 7000 was meant to be used standalone, it also had an unusual design with a fairly large front-facing speaker. These were interesting follow-ups to his traditional Venue 7 and 8.

Dell Venue 10 7000
Dell Venue 8 7000
Dell Venue 7
Dell Venue 8

Dell Venue 10 7000 • Dell Venue 8 7000 • Dell Venue 7 • Dell Venue 8

In 2015 Acer released Predator 8. As you can tell from its design, this was a gaming tablet. It had an Atom x7-Z8700 with 4 CPU cores (no hyperthreading) and a GPU developed by Intel.

Others, such as Lenonvo’s Yoga Tablet 2, were more casual, designed for home multimedia use with built-in kickstands and powerful speakers.

acer predator 8
Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10.1

Acer Predator 8 • Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10.1

The 2014 Nokia N1 looks very ordinary on the surface, but what makes it unusual is that it was made by Microsoft shortly after it acquired Nokia’s Devices & Services division. Not too strange considering Microsoft released the first Android-powered Nokia devices (the Nokia X series) a few months ago.

Nokia N1

Nokia N1

The combination of Intel CPUs and Microsoft Windows is so common that it has been nicknamed Wintel. So where are the Intel-powered Windows tablets? Microsoft was trying to free itself from its dependence on Intel (and x86 CPUs in general) by creating Windows RT running on ARM. This resulted in a slate like the Nokia Lumia 2520.

Allview didn’t fully embrace the “Windows on ARM” picture, so there were also some Atom-powered Windows tablets. One was also a bit of a Transformer. It was running Windows 10. This makes a lot more sense than trying to get the laptop experience from Android 4.4 (I mean Asus). Allview made a KitKat tablet (Viva i10G), but thankfully it didn’t go the Transformers route.

Allview Wi8G
Allview Wi10N PRO
Allview Viva i10G

All-view Wi8G, All-view Wi10N PRO, All-view Viva i10G

There are many other Atom-equipped tablets from Xiaomi, Samsung, HP, Micromax, etc.

Xiaomi Mi Pad 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 P5210
HP Pro Slate 10 EE G1
Micromax Canvas Tab P690

Xiaomi Mi Pad 2 • Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 P5210 • HP Pro Slate 10 EE G1 • Micromax Canvas Tab P690

This is the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45, a device I didn’t expect to pick an Intel chip. Yes, it’s a smartwatch. It’s expensive at $1,200/€1,100 for the 41mm model at launch. A titanium case and he had a ceramic bezel around his 1.39-inch AMOLED display (covered by sapphire glass). And it had an Intel Atom Z3000 series chipset running Android Wear OS 2.1. Hit enough diamonds on this puppy and you could easily grow her to six figures.

 TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45

TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45

The last device I want to mention is this beauty, the Nokia 9000 Communicator.It didn’t technically use an Intel chip, but instead had one from AMD 486 Runs at 33MHz. You can read more about this powerhouse of communication in our previous Flashback post.

Nokia 9000 Communicator
Nokia 9000 Communicator (image credit)

As you can see, things dried up around 2014/2015. Attempts at mainstream adoption failed, and only the odd design was relegated to using Intel chips. The company eventually stopped making Atom chips for smartphones and tablets, and manufacturers moved on anyway.

Intel still had a modem division before selling it to Apple in 2019. Apple itself dropped out of Mac computers with the introduction of the Apple M chipset.

Flashback: A look back at Intel-powered smartphones and tablets

Intel has now completely moved away from mobile gaming, but in recent years there have been major issues to worry about (Foundry progress stalled, with TSMC leading). Android still supports x86, but you rarely see this in practice. Windows 11 can run Android apps, even apps meant for ARM devices, and this is made possible through emulation. That is Intel Bridge Technology, which was (you guessed it) developed by Intel.

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