Why Android on x86 will fail

We all know Intel is working hard to bring a fully functional version of Android to the x86 architecture, but I think it doesn’t matter how hard they try to make it work, it will ultimately fail. Sure, some people will use it, but it’s more likely that it will remain a gimmick, something for cheap Chinese laptops. In this article, I’ll explain why.

A comment on what Eric Schmid said at MWC 2011 stated the following:

I don’t know but I think if Google doesn’t start pushing Android to the desktop that it will ultimately fail. Thinking that they should develop two operating systems instead of one that scales to all devices seems to be a mistake. That will just fracture the OS experience and what user wants that— that’s why HP is bringing webOS to all devices and Nokia originally designed MeeGo to do the same thing — people want a unified experience, and MS is planning that in Windows 8 so Google had better get with it.

I couldn’t agree less. Let’s face the facts: It’s true that both HP and Nokia tried to develop a universal OS that runs on all devices you use everyday — printers, laptops, phones, that sort of stuff. And now look at the results of their efforts: Nokia has only released one phone with Meego, the N9 and has further discontinued their Linux-based OS. HP’s WebOS is as good as dead, now relying on the modding community to make something worth using.

But let’s say Intel does succeed and Android runs perfectly on the x86 platform, in what kind of devices will it be used:

  • Tablets with an Atom processor
  • Netbooks
  • Laptops
  • Other devices? (Printers, radios?)

Most of these devices will use the Atom processor, which consumes far more power and offers a performance that’s roughly comparable to the Tegra3 SoC by NVidia. So why would we use an Intel processor? What are the advantages?

There are no advantages in using an Intel processor. The Atom chips aren’t much better than their ARM equivalents. Where Intel could really beat the ARM market would be the Sandy Bridge processors (i3, i5 and i7) but they are only used in high-end devices. And what purpose does Android serve on a high-end desktop or laptop? None, because the needed adjustments to make it usable with a mouse and keyboard would make it just another Linux distribution, thus defeating the purpose of running Android on it.

Another commenter on the article I mentioned above said:

2012 will bring quadcores, but we need PCI-e busses, and chipsets compatible with arm that can bring popular network chips, audio, and so on to ARM.

I completely agree with this. A SoC is nice as long as your device is non-expandable, but once you start putting ARM processors in a real desktop computer, you will need the things stated above. That’s where Intel has advantages, the high-end gaming machines powered by expensive graphics cards and stuff like that. It will take some time, but even here, Intel could be beaten. I’ve been given the opportunity to play with a preview build of the freshly released Shadowgun game and it shows graphics on par with my €500 Intel computer powered by a dualcore Xeon, 2GB of RAM and a 256 MB graphics card. OK, those might not be the most impressive specs you’ve ever seen but they are in a certain way twice the specs of my Tab 10.1 — the device I played Shadowgun on. How is it that my Tab 10.1 outputs better graphics then? One word: Optimization.

NVidia and Madfinger have done some low-level optimization on this game, making the level of graphics detail on par with the Xbox 1 console and partly with the Xbox 360. I’m not saying you will be able to run Crysis 2 on your tablets anytime soon (Yes, I’m indeed mocking the famous sentence ‘But does it run Crysis?) but we’re already able to run certain legacy desktop games like Quake III on our mobile devices. And that’s only a dualcore Tegra2, but if you check out the graphics performance of the quadcore Tegra3, you’ll understand why I think Intels empire will come to an end in a few years.

One of the main advantages of the x86 architecture is that it’s much more evolved. There are 10-core Xeon processors, that’s true. The downside of those überprocessors is that they cost a hell of a lot of money. I mean, 4000 bucks for 10 cores or 200 for 2 cores? I know this is a skewed comparison, but in a certain and odd way, it’s a good comparison. x86 processors are far from cost-effective.

ARM-devices are also usable in servers, HP is rumored to bring one of the first main-stream ARM servers next month and we’ve already witnessed Pandaboards being used by Canonical to build Ubuntu for ARM. On top of that, most of the NASs we use today are using an ARM processor. Yes folks, ARM is the next big thing.

But OK, I’m wandering off. What started as a post about why Intel’s Android x86 will fail ended up being a comparison between the x86 and ARM architectures. I think x86 will be passé in the not so distant future unless Intel starts innovating. In order to make Android on the x86 architecture a success, Intel needs to make their Atom processors consume less power and offer more performance compared to their ARM equivalents. I doubt they will. You may have noticed the fact that I didn’t mention AMD in this article, that’s because I don’t know a lot about AMD and I haven’t used their technology that often, but I’m assuming it’s the same story for them too, although their APUs are doing a pretty good job.

  • There is already Android x86 http://www.android-x86.org/. And don’t forget Android is Linux based which can damn near run on anything.

  • Stephengosala

    I would def buy a powerful Dual booting Windows/Android Tablet

  • The flaw I find in your article is that you assume x86 automatically means user configurable hardware.  

    Android is (currently) for embedded systems and by definition or practice this means systems that don’t change their hardware after they are sold.  Netbooks and small laptops fall into this category, as do net tops & set top boxes like the Logitech Revue or Wii, Playstation or xBox (not that we’ll see an Android powered Microsoft product).  These are devices that can be quickly designed, mass produces and sold with existing parts, making them cheaper (volume discounts) and faster to market than their ARM based counterparts.  There is money to be made in these markets, and Intel wants us to use their existing and upcoming chips to make that money.The problem comes from trying to take a Android from the “embedded system” paradigm to the “any system” paradigm like Windows and Ubuntu.  The real market there is in “recycling” older technology to run the newer systems.  This is not likely to be a an “easy money” market, so I doubt we will see that grow.  In this part, you are right that it is a dead end.

    • Asfasdfasf

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      • Lippy Lipkowski AKA Lip

        This is a somewhat old thread, but I must say that this issue of intel vs arm is really a moot point. Regardless of the architecture that is being used, the beauty of the Android environment is the OPEN SOURCE ASPECT OF IT. I love talking about hardware, but it is not really relevant in the overall context of what is happening here with Android. Android is a computing MOVEMENT. Not just an OS. The amount of development that has gone on since this thread was fresh 10 months ago, IS SHOCKING. I mean can you say WTF twice and underline it in red and exclaim it? I mean I have an HP touchpad which was previously considered a piece of friggin stool, and now it is a VERY useful Android tablet and has some of the best specs and build quality you can get in a tablet that can run Android. The camera is not working….blah…but 6 or 7 days ago HP released the source code for their open source Web OS. Certianly this will lead to the Cyanogenmod people to fix the camera issue on the Tenderloin (HP Touchpad) rom. How could it not? The camera code is in there for anyone to see. I love the machine so much I might try to start to learn to code and get my buddy Bob to help me figure a way to garnish the proper driver to use for this camera on the Touchpad so I can get it working AND SHARE MY WORK FOR FREE WITH ANYONE WHO WANTS TO GET ONE OF THESE PIGS OFF E-GHEY FOR 150 BUCKS AND HACK IT TO ANDROID!!*&%!&*() WEEEEEEEE!!!


        This logistic I just described is what is relevant in all this Android stuff. Frankly I am shocked that Google decided to totally open source the shit. I bet there are a bunch of greedy money hungry control freak types high up at Google that are now somewhat regretting the lost profit opportunities and spying opportunities that they have let go by open sourcing Android in total. Big mistake from the globalist / elitist / money hungry pig angle.

        But what is done is done and there is no going back now. We have all witnessed open source projects bloom over the years. Look at what a nice power server OS redhat became in the 90’s. I had TONS of customers on that OS beating the stank out of MS and Apple servers all day every day on free software. That is what is relevant here. Not this trivial platform discussion.

        It does my heart good to think that there must have been a LOT of pressure internally at Google from the people that are left there that actually still subscribe to the DON’T BE EVIL mantra. I suspect there are not too many of them. Perhaps this open sourcing of Android is evidence that there are many of them left and that they have not liked watching what was started magnanimously as a free kick ass search engine turn into big brother and the friggin b0rg. Like RAPIDLY.

        Ironically, Google has released of their own volition the tool that will route out the evil types and make them and their spying greedy dishonest ways irrelevant. CAN YOU SAY SCREW ADSENSE? MUWHAHAHAHA I DIGRESS.

        I think this Android open source MOVEMENT is going to rise up and sweep away a lot of the bullshit that the computer industry has become. I am VERY hopeful that it will, and YES people should be running this on X86 and on desktops FOR SURE. LETS KILL MICROSOFT PEOPLE. EVERYONE HATES THEM. DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE


        /me bows.


        }8^) M.O.S.H.

        Oh yeah.


        L O V E I T ! ! ! ! !

        • Lippy Lipkowski AKA Lip

          One more point is this. I find it absolutely incredible that a company like Verizon is allowing rooted phones EN MASSE on their network. They gave me my Samsung Galaxy Nexus FOR FREE. Dual core 1.2 gig Arm7 1 GIg DDR3 memory and 32 gig flash device. This open sourcing and rabbid dev and free application availability has pushed Verizon to accept the rooted phone en masse scenario just purely based on the STRENGTH OF THE SOFTWARE. Android has hit the market SO HARD that it is rivaling the iPhone’s app store versatility. Truly amazing in such a short period of time. That is what open source brings. Technical diversity and excellence. In a very short period of time. This has forced a large company like Verizon to accept the state of affairs the way they are now. I mean hell they cannot even stop you from tethering your phone anymore. What a cou for the users that is. Gotta love it. Thanks to all the open source devs that devote time to this stuff. You people rock.

  • Anonymous

    The problem you list here stems from the fact that the x86 architecture has a lot of legacy support embedded into it, making it less efficient.This CISC architecture focuses on Backwards compatibility. With Windows 8 having more hardware transparency–since it now supports ARM, it will become less imperative to keep supporting legacy software. Intel is on the downfall if they don’t do something soon.

    ARM’s RISC architecture is very slim and efficient because it supports the ARMv7 instruction sets. THAT”S IT. It supports a few others via the external NEON chip, but that is off-die. 

    Once intel drops legacy support, you will see efficiency increase. As for AMD? With their faildozer, they aren’t making headway into the Desktop market anytime soon. They have potential at the low end, they just need to execute. Having these APUs out provides an interesting advantage.

    Here is to hoping IBM can get back in it with the PowerPC Arch.

  • Well maybe the device may not turn out well – but at least we may get a much quicker emulator that uses virtualisation rather than emulating the ARM CPU, as Android will support the native (x86/x86_64) architecture of the Linux/Windows/Mac box developers are working on. When running on Linux (with KVM installed) it’s already possible to run the Google TV emulator in this way and it seems a lot faster.

  • Anonymous

    Power specs for Tegra 3 and Medfield as well as the chips are not out yet.  So how in the world can you jump to these conclusions?

    • Thijs Koot

      I’ve got a contact over at NVidia, can’t speak about that stuff. NDAs.
      Trust me, I know what I’m talking about with the Tegra3. 

  • Did you ever tried the Asus Transformer ?!? Android already plays nicely with a keyboard and a mouse! Duh!

  • Todd

    Make my phone OS smarter not my pc OS DUMBER a’la iOS5

  • Lawrence D’Oliveiro

    You are right, but the reasons you are right are more economic than technical.

    Look at the x86 ecosystem, and how lopsided it is: the bulk of the profits go to Intel (for hardware) and Microsoft (for software). All the other links in the chain are left with scraps. That’s not a recipe for encouraging innovation. Which is why the innovation has gone elsewhere, to the ultramobile space where ARM rules.

    In the ARM space, there is plenty of potential for profit for players in all parts of the chain. And there is competition at every point in the chain—alternative suppliers of ARM chips, and even non-Google-blessed Android builds. And some Chinese players even seem to be looking at MIPS chips as an alternative to ARM. This abundance of competition is why we see so much innovation in this space.

    • HRJ

      One of the most insightful comments I have seen so far.

    • Guesst

      Atom is priced for volume. Its not comparable to other core processors in that respect.

  • Anonymous

    It would be awesome if there was a tablet with a DVD drive…

    • Daniel

      That’s insane. It would weigh down the tablet A LOT, make it too heavy to hold and kill the battery life. Plus DVDs are going the way of the dodo. If you need to plug in an external drive you can with USB — I do that all the time with my Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S. But even without the DVD drive, it’s still too heavy to use very often as a tablet.

  • Guest

    I think it’s useful to remember a key feature of Android is that it runs on a Dalvik VM layer which permits any Android app to be run on any processor architecture that can run a JVM. This means that processor architectures which used to prevent easily portability of both OS and applications are no longer a barrier in porting. The chief issue, of course, is theoretical performance, since at current technological levels, virtualization requires more resources to realize.

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  • The problem here is that you’re talking as if Android has to be on portable devices. Your power consumption based points mean nothing if I’m looking to use Android in an environment where battery life isn’t an issue.

    What about digital sinage? Kiosks and Vending? In car PCs?

    Running x86 doesn’t just mean the desktop. If Android can run on standard off the shelf x86 equipment that gives it a huge advantage over requiring ARM based stuff – I can buy it off the shelf, in any city in pretty much any country.

  • Jfc1

    …the first guy to hook a wireless mouse, keyboard, audio and display up to an Android box will set the pace and the rest will be off to the races. God help MS if it has full support for OpenGL, Java, HTML5, any of a whole host of scripting languages like Perl, Python, etc.

    X86/IA64 dead, man, except on dedicated power-hungry legacy boxes: your servers, your workstations, all the places where embedded wouldn’t compete anyway. Just cut the wires and the rest will be history.

  • Gunther

    win8 is not a solution. ARM winRT is not win8. its more a sort of winCE.

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  • Caleb Howland

    Well guess what? Android x86 did work after all. Quit your squabbling. 🙂 In all seriousness, though, as Android x86 is maturing and more releases are being built, more and more apps are becoming cross-compatible with the x86 architecture. After all, ARM was originally built for RISC OS and other such paraphernalia in the late ’80s. As time goes on, hardware devs are seeing potential in the x86 and x64 chip world as pertains to the mobile platform. (Oh, by the way, Skype doesn’t exactly work yet.) 🙂

  • Android on Xbox (first version, x86) would be fun !