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Intel Debuts New Smartphone Chips at MWC
Date: Feb 27, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Intel launched its Medfield platform only six weeks ago, but the company is moving ahead with plans for additional processors based on the 32nm SoC. At Mobile World Congress today, Santa Clara announced plans for two additional system on a chip (SoC) designs to flesh out its product roadmap. The current Z2460 that we covered in January will be augmented by the Z2000 at the low-end and a new dual-core chip, the Z2580. Of the two, the Z2000 will ship in retail products in the second half of this year, while the Z2580 won't be available for purchase until early 2013.

The already-launched 1.6GHz Z2460 is also getting a performance nudge; the core is now officially capable of a 2GHz maximum frequency rather than the 1.6GHz Intel specified originally. As far as we know, all current manufacturers are sticking with 1.6GHz, but the option is there for those who want to push the present design. The low-end Z2000 is a single-core Atom clocked at 1GHz with no Hyper-Threading; it'll ship with a companion XMM 6265 modem that supports HSPA+ but no LTE.

The Medfield prototypes we saw in December are very similar to shipping devices

That might seem a bit anemic, but Intel's target market for these devices is the sub-$200 smartphone space in countries like India and China. Here, the Z2000's single-core, non-HT design will go up against relatively low-end products based on older ARM cores with low-resolution screens.

As part of the research that built the Z2000, Intel conducted a survey across the US, Europe, and China to measure which capabilities users were most interested in. The results are shown below:

The Z2000 and the SGX540 GPU that accompanies it are well positioned to deliver the benefits consumers claim to want the most. The Z2000's high-speed camera, support for 720p encode and 1080p decode, and 320MHz GPU are a significant leap above what's currently available at the low end of the market, where screen resolutions range from 480x320 to 800x480 and the older Adreno 200 is often the fastest GPU available. Intel's work on Android doesn't guarantee that carriers will roll out Ice Cream Sandwich to a wider range of phones, but increasing the general capabilities of the lower-end platforms improves the experience of using them.

Let's switch gears and talk a bit more about the higher-end solution.
Intel's dual-core SoC
The Z2580 will be a dual-core chip at 1.8GHz. Both cores will have Hyper-Threading (for a total of four threads), and the chip will use a dual-GPU configuration of the SGX544. That's the same GPU that currently powers the iPad 2, but Intel's version will be clocked at 533MHz (current implementations of the SGX543/544 tend to run at 200-300MHz). The next-generation SoC's GPU probably won't be the fastest chip on the market by the time it ships, but it'll be significantly faster than what's in the iPhone 4S right now and therefore likely still competitive.

Intel's CES reference design

The chip's CPU, on the other hand, should be extremely competitive. Hyper-Threading, combined with the low degree of quad-core optimization in current shipping smartphone products, give Intel an edge here. In situations where quad-threaded applications are available, HT will allow the chip to achieve higher performance. When it isn't -- which will likely be the majority of the time -- the Atom core won't be penalized.

This leaves the question of how Intel will squeeze a dual-core 1.8GHz chip into a smartphone where a 1.6GHz single-core is currently, without moving to a new process? Intel isn't saying yet, but we bet we know why. To answer this question, we need to broaden our perspective from considering just the CPU, and look at the entire phone.

The flat blue line shows current power consumption; the dotted blue line estimates a modest decrease in line with an improved 32nm process

A modern smartphone contains a screen, Flash memory, DRAM, a GPU, and a cellular/WiFi radio -- to name just a few components. The question isn't "How much power will the CPU draw," but "What's the power consumption of the device?"  A phone with a weak GPU or an ultra power-efficient radio can use that headroom to increase the performance of another component.

By the time the Z2580 launches, Intel will have further improved its 32nm process, likely reducing power consumption below the Z2460's level. Chances are good that the next-generation XMM 7160 radio included with the new dual-core chip will be built on 28nm; we've included a non-Intel graph below showing Xilinx's estimated power savings when moving from 40nm to 28nm. The figures are strictly representative, but they show the sort of gains multiple companies have claimed from the process shift.

Intel isn't sharing any details on what innovations its baking into the next-generation dual-core SoC, but we expect the chip will modestly expand Medfield's competitive range vis-à-vis the solutions it ships against at launch. When Intel historically launched itself into PCs, data centers, and the HPC market, it succeeded in all three by offering price/performance competitive solutions. This worked particularly well in data centers and big iron implementations in the mid-90s, where the RISC vendors of old largely dismissed x86 as a consumer platform until it was too late to reverse the trend.

Phones aren't guaranteed to follow the same path, but Intel's manufacturing prowess and steady progression will make life difficult for its ARM-based competition. When we talked to the company, we were told Santa Clara is pleased with the response its gotten from Medfield thus far. According to one unnamed source, the question has gone from "Will you ever get in phones?" to "How long until you have phones that can do X, Y, or Z?"

2012 is all about building momentum around Medfield, and creating phones that can challenge incumbent ARM-based designs in a variety of markets.

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