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Intel Clover Trail+, Advancing Atom In Mobile
Date: Feb 25, 2013
Author: Dave Altavilla
Introducing Clover Trail+
When we covered Intel’s first significant foray into the smartphone arena, early in January 2012, there was little doubt in our minds that the company had set its sights on the mobile market with a plan and roadmap for execution.  Though Medfield and Lexington, now known as the Atom Z2460 SoC, and its lower cost sibling Atom Z2420, looked solid enough on paper, we expected Intel would have an uphill battle versus already well-established players like Qualcomm, Samsung, NVIDIA and the like.  As it turned out, Medfield and Lexington Atom SoCs never really made it to smartphones marketed in the US, but they did gain some traction in about 10 design wins for Intel, primarily in emerging markets, Latin America, APAC and the UK.  Regardless, market penetration on a more global scale just wasn’t what we assume Intel had hoped for.

Today, however, Intel is keeping on track for execution of their roadmap plan in the mobile space, with the release of their follow-on to Medfield, code-named Clover Trail+.  Clover Trail, as you’ll remember, is powering many a Windows 8 tablet these days.  Intel's latest Atom-based SoC is a more natural fit here, with the intrinsic advantages of being able to run full X86 compatible software on a tablet or convertible device, while still offering strong battery life and performance.  That said, Clover Trail+, Intel’s new performance and feature-optimized version of Clover Trail for the smartphone and tablet market, has that same long row to hoe versus incumbents, at least in the highly competitive handset arena.

What’s more than interesting this time around is that Clover Trail+ seems to really have the chops (at least on paper) to keep pace with, and even exceed, certain performance characteristics of current, best-of-class ARM-based architectures that have been so dominant in smartphone designs thus far.  And on the power consumption front, Intel is claiming their long-beloved “HUGI” (Hurry-Up and Get Idle) approach to clock gating will afford them a platform power advantage like no other smartphone architecture on the market currently.  A tall order.  Big claims.  Is Intel just getting warmed up?  Let’s take a look.

Intel Clover Trail+
Specifications & Features

Intel's Smartphone Reference Design

Clover Trail+ is another 32nm design for Intel, though their next generation Bay Trail architecture will migrate to 22nm.  Bay Trail will be the first quad-core Atom design, offering twice the compute performance as Clover Trail and should arrive in time for the 2013 holiday shopping season, so we are told.  Intel is already claiming good traction with major OEM partners for Bay Trail tablet designs as well.  But I digress, what is immediately obvious with the Clover Trail+ platform reference design specification, versus Intel's previous generation Medfield architecture, is that Intel has beefed up almost every major functional block.  Let's dive in a little deeper...
Clover Trail+ and Its Variants
From its now dual-core, 4-thread capable Atom core, to its new PowerVR SGX 544MP2 graphics engine, 2GB of LPDDR2 1066 DRAM, up to 256GB of NAND storage, a higher resolution 16MP camera and Intel’s XMM 6360 HSPA+ 42Mbps modem; Intel’s Clover Trail+ smartphone reference design brings a lot more to the table than Medfield ever did.

In fact, you could say that Clover Trail+ stands a very good chance of putting Intel on the map in the US smartphone market. Intel's graphics block and memory bandwidth improvements alone afford the chip significantly more balanced system resources versus Medfield.  There is but one check box item you might deem missing here, however, and that's LTE support.  42Mbps HSPA+ has shown to be actually faster in certain areas versus some LTE networks but LTE technology is becoming much more pervasive.  As it turns out, Intel has the XMM 7160 LTE chipset in their portfolio and Clover Trail+ will support this as well.  For now HSPA+ is in the roll-out with an upgrade path to LTE, so we're told.

Clover Trail+ Variants –

There will be three primary derivatives of Clover Trail+ platforms.  All three will incorporate the same base feature set, they will just vary in terms of CPU and graphics core clock speeds.  This is a reasonable approach for handset manufacturers especially, since it will allow for less complex BOM (Bill of Materials) sets in manufacturing of various types of smartphones with different price points.

The top-end Atom Z2580 SoC will drop in at a 2GHz clock speed, similar to Medfield, only again, offering a dual-core CPU with Intel HyperThreading.  On a side note, Intel did confirm that the latest version of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean is logical thread-aware and can take advantage of Intel’s HyperThreading load balancing algorithms.  Regardless, when it comes to smartphones, multithreaded applications are still few and far between, though there are clearly applications in gaming, multimedia and encoding that will make better use of threading in the future.

As we see here, Intel will offer a 1.6GHz CPU/400MHz GPU version dubbed the Z2560 and a 1.2GHz CPU/300MHz GPU Atom Z2520 model as well.  You’ll also note all variants support 1920X1200 display resolutions and accelerated 1080p video encoding and decoding.

Clover Trail+ Imaging Capabilities –

Intel has put heavy emphasis on the imaging horsepower and feature set of its new smartphone platform.  This makes sense since obviously smartphones are doubling more and more as secondary still image and video cameras.  A high quality, high resolution camera is no longer just a bonus feature, it's a hard requirement.

Intel is not only claiming zero shutter lag with Clover Trail+ driven smartphones, they’re offering up 8MP burst shooting at 15fps and continuous 8MP snaps at 3fps.  In addition, Atom Z25XX-powered cameras will support face detection and recognition technologies.

These are relatively impressive capabilities for a smartphone camera, and along with video stabilization, 1080p recording, HDR image capture, anti-ghosting and motion blur reduction technologies, Clover Trail+ could offer one of the best digital camera implementations in the smartphone market currently.

Clover Trail+ Products and Performance Expectations

Clover Trail Products and Performance Expectations -

Though Intel is claiming multiple design wins waiting in the wings, Lenovo’s K900 smartphone was chosen to showcase Clover Trail+ previously at CES2013.

The K900 is a very large 5.5-inch phone and those lucky enough to get some hands-on time with it have commented about its high quality, thin, industrial design, as well as its impressive full HD screen with 400+ PPI density.

Under the hood of the K900 is an Atom Z2580 SoC and all the flagship features that go along with Intel’s top-end SKU.   Though the design is sleek and thin, it does look a bit squared off compared to the rounded corners we’re so familiar with in many high-end Android phones.

Clover Trail+ Performance Expectations -

Performance-wise, Intel supplied us with a fair amount backup data that supports Clover Trail+ performance across a number of standard usage models and workloads.  Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to disclose the data first hand.  What we can tell you is that, for standard computing functions like web browsing, Javascript, photo manipulation etc., Clover Trail+ will be on par or slightly faster than Medfield, which is actually a solid competitive watermark, since Atom generally does well in these areas. Versus SoCs found in smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S3, Intel has historically been faster.  Also, Clover Trail+ could offer up to 2X the performance in multithreaded apps, with the biggest performance gains available above two threads.  

In addition, Clover Trail+ should offer graphics performance dramatically better than Intel’s previous generation Medfield Atom SoC. In certain scenarios Intel is showing a 3X increase for Clover Trail+'s SGX 544MP2 GPU versus the SGX540 in Medfield, and surpassing the Adreno 320 core found in the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro that resides in phones like Google’s Nexus 4. 

Of course Intel is rather proud of their new-found mobile graphics prowess and possibly no other Intel employee is more proudly outspoken about Intel technologies than the flamboyant Frenchman, our good buddy, Mr. Francois Piednoel. Francois has taken to the airways, or should we say Youtubes as of late, with sneak peeks of Lenovo's K900 and Clover Trail+ demonstrating some rather impressive gaming performance in various titles like Max Payne, Epic's Citadel demo and Bat Man: The Dark Knight Rises for Android. 

Feast on the eye candy while Francois has a little fun...

As you can see, the Lenovo K900 seems to handle the action with relative ease.  You can check out a couple more demos Francois has loaded up on his YT channel right here.  We hope to have a few demos of our own with the device, shortly.
Finally, somewhat surprisingly, Intel also expects Clover Trail+ to shine in battery life.  Here Intel points to Clover Trail+’s ability to get to an idle state more quickly (HUGIs all around, people), bringing total platform power down to a half-Watt or less.  Clover Trail+ reportedly clock gates between a zero-power C6 standby mode, LFM (Low Frequency Mode) and HFM (You guessed it, High Frequency Mode) and its max frequency with what Intel calls “Burst Performance Technology” or BPT (illustrated in the diagram to the left).  Total platform power at its full 2GHz clock speed does appear to be higher than most of the current high-end competition, however, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in real-world usage.  The technology is tried and true for Intel in the desktop, notebook and tablet space; Intel arguably has some of the best power consumption mitigation technologies available. However, whether or not this translates to competitive battery life numbers in handsets, versus low power ARM architectures, remains to be seen.

We have been told the first Clover Trail+-powered smartphones will be hitting retail sometime in April, with Lenovo's K900 leading the charge.  We hope to get in an early prototype for testing and review here in the coming weeks, so make sure you stay tuned.  In the meantime, it looks like Intel is gearing up to make things even more interesting this year in the smartphone and tablet race, and their first 22nm quad-core Atom architecture is on the horizon next.

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