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Intel Debuts Merrifield and Moorefield Designs at MWC
Date: Feb 24, 2014
Author: Joel Hruska
Intel is announcing its new tablet and smartphone designs this week at Mobile World Congress, alongside a major push to drive adoption of its 28nm XMM 7160 and XMM 7260 modem technology. It's been two years since Intel launched its first serious Atom-based smartphone platform, codenamed Medfield, and it's safe to say that those two years haven't gone precisely as Intel intended. Originally, the company planned to have a solid market share built up by now. Instead, it's planning a major tablet initiative with multiple partners with a few possible smartphone SoC wins on the side.

The chips that will power these efforts are the Z34 and Z35 families, known as Merrifield and Moorefield, respectively. A comparison of Merrifield and the older Clover Trail+ is shown below:

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The new Merrifield core will use a 4G-capable XMM 7160 modem, a 1080p camera capable of 60 FPS capture, and the same Bay Trail CPU that we've previously reviewed. While it lacks Hyper-Threading, the additional of out-of-order processing means that the dual-core Bay Trail will be significantly faster than the older, in-order Atom parts.

Merrifield also uses a PowerVR GPU core based on Series 6 (codenamed "Rogue.") This new GPU core is substantially more powerful than the older cores Intel used in the past and contains four separate compute clusters. Historically, Intel's tablets and smartphones have targeted "acceptable" graphics rather than fielding anything genuinely first rate, but that may change in 2014.

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The new Moorefield SoC is similar to Bay Trail in many respects. Maximum clock speeds are only slightly lower than Intel's Bay Trail, both chips support LPDDR3, and both are quad core designs. Where Moorefield differs from Bay Trail is that it includes the XMM 7160 modem (this chip isn't standard with a Bay Trail SoC) and it swaps out the Intel HD graphics architecture that Bay Trail uses for an expanded G6430 GPU from PowerVR. The G6430 GPU is similar to the G6400, but has more core resources and is designed to scale more effectively. RAM speeds are also lower than Bay Trail's, at a maximum of 800MHz as opposed to DDR3-1066.
Performance on the two chips is expected to be competitive with other solutions, though Intel was markedly more coy about benchmark discussions than it was two years ago with Medfield. Test data was confined to the Intel-sponsored WebXPRT and MobileXPRT tests, with the older GFXBench's Egypt HD test thrown in for good measure.

Intel's decision to provide such limited data isn't very inspiring. Two years ago, when it unveiled Medfield, Intel was very open about where its products would place in industry-standard tests against competitive devices. Now, for whatever reason, it's eschewing that approach in favor of highly specific results. Though, one of Intel's engineers did post this video of a Merrifield-based reference platform in action, which seems to show the device performing well:

Intel Merrifield Reference Platform

One additional point where Intel did give information, however, was the proposed speedup from adopting 64-bit Android applications.

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Unfortunately, these estimations aren't actually based on 64-bit Android application performance, but on 32-bit vs. 64-bit runs of SPEC CPU2000.These results underscore the difficulty of making pronouncements about the evolution of the Android ecosystem, where app schedules and 64-bit launch rates are, by necessity, far more scattershot. It's not clear what the time table is for a unified 64-bit Android -- presumably we'll see the first 64-bit versions of the OS launch on devices later this year.

Looking To The Future:

Two years ago, we thought Intel had finally solved the problems that stood between it and effective competition in the smartphone industry. Intel's tablet plans, which called for a heavy focus on Windows 8 with first-generation Clover Trail, fell apart as consumers overwhelmingly skipped the high price and mediocre performance of these designs in favor of Apple and to a lesser extent, Android devices.

After Moorestown's 45nm disappointment and Medfield / Clover Trail's weak debut, we're a bit more wary of forecasting the third time around. We think Intel will gain tablet market share this year, due simply to the fact that it's putting a massive focus on marketing partnerships and working with the historic PC OEMs to do it. Dell, Lenovo, HP, and Asus have seen the writing on the wall for the conventional PC industry, and they're going to be eager to push adoption out to a wider customer base.

This time around, Android is an equal partner, not a secondary focus, tablet prices have come down to roughly half of where they were in 2012, and Intel is better positioned with new 22nm chips to launch into the market with a focus on classic partners rather than attempting to woo new OEMs. Still, it's an open question -- and a lot of eyes will be watching the chip giant to see how effectively it manages to sell into this space.

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