By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Intel Chief Financial Officer Stacy Smith likes the questions he is receiving from Wall Street these days a lot more than the concerns many investors voiced last year about the PC chip giant's ability to adapt to consumers' growing preference for smartphones and tablets.
After investors eyeing tepid PC sales shunned Intel's shares for much of 2011, the stock has rebounded since September and recently hit a four-year high as the company promotes a new category of premium notebooks and shows off a mobile processor that may finally put it in the mobile race.
Smith told Reuters his conversations with investors have become easier in the past few months.
"A year ago, the concerns were that the drivers of the market weren't going to let Intel grow and that there was something inherent in our architecture that precluded us from being able to participate in fast growing parts of the market," Smith said in an interview on Wednesday. "Fast forward a year and we've alleviated both of those concerns."
Intel's processors are the brains in 80 percent of the world's personal computers, but the company has had a hard time adapting its powerful "x86" architecture to make low-powered chips for mobile devices that depend on batteries.
With PC sales flagging in the United States and Europe, nearly all smartphones and tablets, including Apple's iPhones and iPads, use energy-efficient processors based on a competing technology licensed to chip designers by Britain's ARM Holdings and made by Intel rivals like Samsung and Qualcomm.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, Intel impressed technophiles with demonstrations of its new Medfield mobile chip and said Motorola Mobility and Lenovo have picked it for upcoming smartphones.
Smith said investors are now asking about new products like Medfield as well as Intel's growing budgets for R&D and new factories to extend its lead in manufacturing.
On a conference call with analysts following Intel's quarterly report in January, he reassured investors that the company's record $12.5 billion capital spending planned for 2012 would not become permanent and would come down in the future.
Intel's new mobile chip is made using Intel's 32 nanometer manufacturing technology, and new generations of the chip manufactured at even smaller sizes in 2012 and 2013 will be even more energy efficient, Intel says.
"We're cleanly in the game. We're among the best today with the current generation and it will extend out over time," Smith said.
Intel refocused its push into mobile on Google's popular Android platform last year after cellphone maker Nokia backed away from a platform it had been working on with Intel.
Analysts see Lenovo and Motorola's decision to build phones using Medfield as a good start for Intel, but many remain cautious and are waiting to see how many Intel-powered phones are bought by consumers. Smith said Intel would eventually look to sell its chips for phones running competing platforms.
"When you look at the phone market, there's the Apple camp, the Google camp, the Microsoft camp. We will work hard to win designs across all those segments of the market."
Weak economies in the United States and Europe, as well as a growing preference for tablets, have hurt PC sales, and Intel is increasingly dependent on emerging markets like China to fuel growth.
Eager to make laptops more attractive to consumers captivated by Apple's iPad, MacBook Air and other mobile gadgets, Intel is pushing PC makers to concentrate on a new "Ultrabook" category of super-thin PCs boasting features from tablets like touch screens and "instant on" responsiveness.
Some analysts question whether the high-end features Intel says Ultrabooks should include might make them too expensive for many consumers. Smith said he expects Ultrabooks prices to decline quickly.
"As we drive scale, costs will come down," Smith said. "We fully expect we'll exit 2012 right in the heart of mainstream notebook price points with these very sexy Ultrabooks, because we'll be shipping tens of millions of them."
(Reporting By Noel Randewich)