Intel Partners with MediaTek to Make 5G Modems for PCs

Dec. 2, 2019
Intel is trying to tap demand from many of the world's largest laptop manufacturers, which are looking to launch personal computers with more of the strengths of smartphones and tablets, including the ability to connect to cellular networks.

Intel said it has partnered with MediaTek to develop 5G modem chips for personal computers, with plans to sell baseband processors to rival Qualcomm in 2021. Intel, which fell short of its 5G ambitions, is trying to tap demand from the world's largest laptop manufacturers, which are looking to launch PCs with more of the strengths of smartphones and tablets, including the ability to connect to cellular networks.

The Santa Clara, California-based company called 5G one of the core components of its effort to transform the personal computer area, which has suffered from stagnant sales in recent years. Intel said the world's leading PC makers, Dell and HP, would be the first to start selling laptops based on the 5G modem, which it plans to pair with its CPUs, WiFi and other chips. Intel holds more than 80% of the market for CPUs used in PCs.

"The 5G modem for PCs, developed in partnership with Intel, is integral to making 5G accessible and available across home and mobile platforms," MediaTek’s president Joe Chen said in a statement last week. MediaTek is the world's second biggest seller of smartphone chips behind Qualcomm. MediaTek plans to start production on its first integrated 5G SoC in the first quarter of 2020. It is based on the 7-nanometer node from TSMC.

Major PC manufacturers are looking to restart slumping sales in part by blurring the lines between laptops, tablets and smartphones. That means building more portable personal computers that can be transformed into tablets when the keyboard is separated from the touch screen. Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung and other PC manufacturers are also aiming to launch ultrathin laptops with longer battery life than other solutions on the market.

Intel is trying to stay ahead of the game with its new Project Athena program. Intel is working with the world's largest manufacturers to set out requirements for the personal computers of the future, including improved performance, longer battery life and faster connectivity. The company said it has partnered with Dell, Asus, Lenovo, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, among others, to roll out new ultrathin, ultralight laptops under the program.

Devices that can be used as laptops or tablets account for about 10% of the personal computer space, market research firm International Data Corporation said in September. Global shipments of these systems—commonly called 2-in-1 devices—are forecast to grow faster than the broader PC market through 2023. About 10% of the detachable tablets could have 5G modems installed by 2023 compared to the 30% with 4G, IDC said. 

The partnership comes as Intel weathers challenges in its PC business, which still accounts for more than 50% of its overall sales. It has also been battling steep shortages of CPUs because of production constraints that started in the second half of 2018, resulting in lost market share to rival AMD. More than 256 million personal computers are expected to be sold globally in 2019, down from 259 million units in 2018, according to Gartner.

Qualcomm, the world's largest vendor of chips used in smartphones, is also challenging Intel's stronghold in personal computers. Samsung, Lenovo and other manufacturers sell PCs based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of Arm-based SoCs, which are usually used in smartphones. The company also adapted its most advanced smartphone chip to support Windows, which has long been reserved to running on PC chips from Intel and AMD.

Then last year Qualcomm, trying to snatch more market share from Intel, launched its first purpose-built chip for PCs, called the Snapdragon 8cx. It is based on 7-nanometers, the world’s most advanced production process, and can constantly connect to cellular networks. It also has lower power consumption to support all-day battery life. Qualcomm said the chip will be used in Microsoft’s Surface Pro X device that can double as a laptop or tablet. 

The San Diego, California-based company has also leaped out to early lead in 5G technology by rolling out chips that can handle the global range of frequency bands used in 5G. More than 230 smartphones and other gadgets based on its 5G modems are already on the market or in development. Qualcomm also announced in mid-2019 that it had partnered with Lenovo to launch the world's the first laptop with an integrated 5G modem in 2020.

Intel, however, suffered setbacks in its 5G development. The company pulled out of the market for 5G modem chips after Apple said it would revive its relationship with Qualcomm. The companies reached an agreement for Qualcomm to supply Apple with modem chips for a span of several years. Intel, which had been struggling to build 5G chips for Apple's future iPhones, sold its 5G smartphone chip assets to Apple for $1 billion in July.

Intel's decision removed a major rival to Qualcomm for one of the most critical components of 5G. MediaTek, Qualcomm and Huawei are today the only suppliers in the world capable of building 5G modems chips. MediaTek said the new 5G modem for PCs would be based on its Helio M70 processor. One potential problem, however, is that this chip is currently unable to handle the millimeter waves favored in the U.S. for 5G networks.

As part of the partnership with MediaTek, Intel said it will draw up blueprints for a 5G laptop solution, including the 5G chip to be designed and manufactured by MediaTek. Intel plans to handle hardware and software engineering to make sure the modem can be integrated with its computer chips and other parts. The company will also lend its systems engineering support to OEMs. Intel said the new chip should be in end products by early 2021.

For Intel, the deal helps it defend its dominance in the PC market. The deal also moves MediaTek into an emerging market for 5G modems. "Intel’s partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world’s best PCs," Gregory Bryant, general manager of Intel's client computing business, said in a statement.

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