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27 November 2019

MediaTek supports Intel’s bid to revive the cellular laptop

Having abandoned most of its modem activities following the breakdown of its 5G deal with Apple, Intel is now partnering with Taiwan’s MediaTek to bring 5G to laptops.

The Taiwanese company was once seen as a major challenger to market leader – and Intel bete noire – Qualcomm, but in recent years, has slipped in the smartphone modem rankings and focused on other areas, such as set-top box chips, for its growth. However, it is promising a big smartphone comeback in 5G, and is also looking for other devices where Qualcomm is a less powerful incumbent.

One could be the laptop and ‘post-PC’ segments, which include slimline, always-connected computers like Intel Ultrabooks and Google Chromebooks. Dell and HP are expected to be the first companies to commercialize laptops using the new joint solution from Intel and Mediatek, which integrates a 5G modem that has been optimized for heavy duty data tasks, with Intel processors. The first models should be available in early 2021.

MediaTek’s president Joe Chen said in a statement: “5G will usher in the next era of PC experiences … With this partnership, consumers will be able to browse, stream and game faster on their PCs, but we also expect them to innovate with 5G in ways we have not yet imagined.”

MediaTek’s new 5G modem for PCs is based in part on its Helio M70 5G product, which it introduced earlier this year as part of its integrated 5G system-on-chip for smartphones.

It remains to be seen how many laptops will actually integrate 5G. There have been brief periods of excitement before about cellular-integrated PCs, in the 3G and 4G eras, but the prevalence of WiFi has limited their adoption.

The ubiquity and high performance of WiFi, and the resistance to additional monthly MNO charges, have made 4G integration unnecessary in most laptops and hybrids, and this is even more the case with the rise of smartphone tethering. Even most pure tablets run on WiFi only to save cost for the end user.

So will 5G make any difference, and give Intel another chance to dominate a cellular device (though not a phone), or Qualcomm and Mediatek another chance to drive their mobile technology into a PC form factor?

It is notable that Project Athena, Intel’s latest bid to define the next generation post-PC platform, does stress integrated 5G, along with other buzz technologies like AI (artificial intelligence). In an era when OEMs are trying to drive cost down as much as possible, reference designs from chip firms like Intel are increasingly powerful, since they reduce the amount of custom development a vendor has to do, reducing cost and time to market. That also increases the influence the chip provider has over the prevailing form factor and design, and may give Intel a better chance to build an ecosystem around its favored approach to the ‘5G post-PC’.

Intel has better form here, having built its PC success around creating just such ecosystems, and establishing hard-to-break dependencies for the manufacturers on platforms like Centrino (for WiFi), Intel Inside (for branding) and Ultrabook. Now it has Project Athena, which was unveiled early this year and sets out the requirements for a future laptop design, for Intel’s OEM partners.

The specifics remain shadowy so far but the brief is that Athena is “designed to enable new experiences and capitalize on next generation technologies, including 5G and artificial intelligence,” said Intel. It did say that 5G and AI are top of its list of new capabilities for its designs, but it is also focusing on fast reboot, all-day battery life,

adjustable form factors, and better raw performance.

So far, it has support from most of the usual suspects – Acer, Asus, Dell, Google, HP, Huawei, Innolux, Lenovo, Samsung, Sharp and Microsoft. The reference designs will apply to Windows and Chrome laptops and devices are expected later this year, though whether these will include 5G options as well as WiFi will, presumably, depend on market demand.

But even if the cellular laptop becomes a real thing in 5G, there will be Qualcomm lurking. It unveiled its Snapdragon 8cx, a highly integrated modem/application processor SoC targeting notebook and Ultrabook devices, early this year.