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

While ARM and Qualcomm have released some awesome mobile GPUs, we kind of wish that Nvidia would start making smartphone chipsets again or at least license GPU designs. AMD dipped its toes back in again, why shouldn’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 farily popular at one point too.

And then there is Intel. Still the dominant supplier of laptop, desktop and server CPUs, Intel’s time as a chipset maker for mobile devices didn’t leave such a legacy. It did start okay, though, and strangely enough it started with ARM.

Intel licensed the ARMv5 instruction set and built on it to create Xscale. The first chips were the PXA210 and PXA250, running at 200MHz and 400MHz, respectively, and they were aimed at PDAs, Personal Digital Assistants (from a modern perspective we’d call them “smartphones without the phone part”).

Intel was targeting high-end PDAs and in 2002 that meant pocketable devices that could decode video and MP3s and had features like wireless connectivity. Here are some interesting numbers about these chips:

  • the PXA210 cost $17, the PXA250 was $39.20 (in 2002 dollars)
  • the PXA250 consumed 256mW at 200MHz and 411mW at 300Mhz
  • the PXA250 measured 17x17mm and cam in a 256-pin ball grid array, the PXA210 was cut down to 225 pins (by using a 16-bit data bus instead of 32-bit)

The PXA250 powered the likes of the Samsung i700. This one did have cell connectivity (2G with GPRS data), a 240 x 320px resistive touch display, 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. Not a PDA clearly, this ran Windows Mobile 2003 SE Smartphone. It was a chunky thing, measuring 20mm thick, and it had a large (for the time) amount of storage – a 3GB microdrive.

The Samsung i750 was also phone-like, however, unlike the i300 it had a touchscreen. Instead a tiny 2.6″ resistive touchscreen, but still. While the slider design let you hide the keypad, the front was adorned with a surprising number of hardware buttons. The i750 was even thicker at 22mm, but it didn’t have a microdrive. it used one of those newfangled microSD cards for extra storage.

Samsung i700
Samsung i300
Samsung i750

Samsung i700 • Samsung i300 • Samsung i750

Motorola had some curious designs from that era. The Motorola A1200 was fairly typical with a transparent flip cover that protected the resistive touch display (and prevented the accidental touches). This display was somehow smaller than the i750 one at 2.4″.

The Motorola Q8 went after the BlackBerry demographic with a QWERTY hardware below the display (2.4″ landscape). There were also flip phones like the A910 – not as sharp as a Razr, this one is interesting is that it avoided the Microsoft hegemony and ran a Linux-based OS instead.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 belong on this list as well. The O2 XDA II, for example, had a “huge” 3.5″ display (still 240 x 320px, though). There was also the i-mate PDA2, a fairly standard device. For an oddball design, check out the tiny laptop that was the Qtek 9000.

By the way, do these feel like they have something in common? Besides the XScale chipsets we mean. That’s right, they were all made by HTC back in their ODM days.

O2 XDA II
i-mate PDA2
Qtek 9000

O2 XDA II • i-mate PDA2 • Qtek 9000

BlackBerry used XScale chips too – they were featured 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

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

Palm used XScale chips as well, running mostly the company’s PalmOS, though there were Windows Mobile devices like the Treo 500v.

palm center
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 launch, XScale was sold to Marvell, putting an end to Intel’s ARM adventure.

Okay, now let’s talk about the phones that you were thinking of when you started reading – those Android phones that were powered by Intel Atom chips.

Motorola was an early adopter with 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.

Motorola RAZR i XT890

Motorola RAZR i XT890

This was a fairly typical setup – Intel CPUs were designed for larger devices with active cooling, so whittling that down to a smartphone form factor proved challenging. The company could only fit 2 CPU cores, but they were fast – they had some of the best single-core performance you could get back then.

But since there were only two of them, multi-core performance was below quad-core ARM designs (the first of which also appeared in 2012). Atoms did support Hyperthreading, that is each CPU could run two hardware threads simultaneously, but it wasn’t as good as actually having twice as many cores.

Two years later Asus used the same generation Atom chips in the first ever Zenfones. These were still using slightly improved the Z2500 series of chips from 2013 (still 32nm, though).

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, the Atom Z3000 series, did go up to quad-core CPUs, in part thanks to dropping to a 22nm node. These were used in the likes of the stylish Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe and the Zenfone Zoom ZX550. As discussed in a previous article, the Zoom had a 28-84mm periscope telephoto lens with smooth zoom. This technology was lost for a few years, but it is making a comeback.

Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe ZE551ML
Asus Zenfone Zoom ZX550

Asus Zenfone 2 Deluxe ZE551ML • Asus Zenfone Zoom ZX550

Intel chips were featured in Asus’ transforming PadFone series too – these could slot into a tablet dock to when you wanted a larger screen. There was the confusingly named Fonepad 7 too, a tablet with phone functionality (unlike the PadFone, this couldn’t turn into anything). The Transformer Pad could turn into an Android laptop, though.

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

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

Dell had transforming tablets as well, like the Venue 10 7000. The thick cylindrical part on one side could slot into a keyboard dock. The smaller Venue 8 7000 was meant for standalone usage, but it also had an unusual design with a sizable front-facing speaker. These were interesting followups to the 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 the Predator 8 – as you can tell by its design, this was a gaming tablet. It was powered by the Atom x7-Z8700, which featured four CPU cores (no Hyperthreading) and an Intel-developed GPU.

Much more casual were the likes of Lenovo’s Yoga Tablet 2, which was designed for multimedia consumption at home with its built-in kickstand and powerful speakers.

Acer Predator 8
Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10.1

Acer Predator 8 • Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10.1

The Nokia N1 from 2014 looks quite regular on the surface and it is, but what made it unusual is that it was made by Microsoft shortly after it acquired Nokia’s Devices & Services division. It runs Android too, although that is a bit less strange once you consider that Microsoft released the first Android-powered Nokia devices a few months earlier (the Nokia X series).

Nokia N1

Nokia N1

The combination of an Intel CPU and Microsoft Windows is so common that it has a nickname, Wintel. So where are the Intel-powered Windows tablets? Well, Microsoft was trying to break free from its dependency 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 some Atom-powered Windows tablets too, since Allview didn’t quite buy into the whole “Windows on ARM” thing. One was also a bit of a transformer – it ran Windows 10, which made a lot more sense than trying to get 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 with it.

Allview Wi8G
Allview Wi10N PRO
Allview Viva i10G

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

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

Here is a device we didn’t expect to pick an Intel chip – the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45. Yes, a smartwatch. An expensive one at that, $1,200/€1,100 for the 41mm model at launch. It had a titanium case and a ceramic bezel around the 1.39″ 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 Slap enough diamonds on this puppy and it could easily grow to 6 digits.

 Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45

Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45

The last device we want to mention is this beauty – the Nokia 9000 Communicator. It didn’t use an Intel chip technically, but instead it was powered by an AMD-made 486 running at 33MHz. You can read more about this communication powerhouse in a previous Flashback post.

Nokia 9000 Communicator
Nokia 9000 Communicator (image credit)

As you can tell, things dried out around 2014/2015. Attempts at mainstream adoption had failed and only oddball designs were relegated to using Intel chips. The company eventually stopped making Atom chips for smartphones and tablets and manufacturers had moved on anyway.

Intel still had its modem division, until selling it to Apple in 2019. Apple itself dropped into from the Mac computers with the introduction of the Apple M chipsets.

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

Intel is completely out of the mobile game now, but it had bigger issues to worry about in the recent years (its foundry progress had stalled, giving TSMC the lead). Android still supports x86, though you are unlikely to see this in action. Windows 11 can run Android apps, even ones meant for ARM devices, but that is enabled by emulation – the Intel Bridge Technology, which was developed by (you guessed it) Intel.

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