Intel announced its plans for 2015 at Mobile World Congress on Monday and one of its bigger announcements is that its long-awaited mobile-focused system on a chip will ship in devices before the end of the year. As more smartphones start to be powered by Intel-designed silicon, here’s what you need to know:
What they’ll be called
Intel announced that its mobile product branding will match its Core desktop processor branding, with various tiers labeled with x3, x5, and x7 model numbers. Intel previously referred to its mobile SoC as SoFIA, which was a codename. When it ships, it will be sold under the Atom X3 moniker.
The similarly named Atom X7 and the Atom X5 are different chips, without integrated radios, and with a much different focus. The Atom X5 and Atom X7 will probably land in tablets and laptops, not smartphones, running “full Windows and Android.” They figure to be a lower-cost alternative to Intel’s Core M line. If those devices need LTE connectivity, they will be powered by a separate modem.
Intel’s SoC is for low end devices
Intel stood by while Qualcomm took over the mobile chip market the last few years, and although it’s starting to catch up, it’s not going toe-to-toe in the high end. “They’re still setting the pace,” Intel VP Aicha Evans told PC World. “I am happy they’re no longer years ahead of us; we’re now talking months.”
The x86-based Atom X3 is headed for phones selling for as little as $75. There will be three Atom X3 chips, two of which will ship with an integrated 3G radio, as opposed to the speedier LTE radios now standard in developed markets. (An Atom X3 with an LTE radio that supports up to 14 LTE bands is promised for the second half of 2015.)
The graphics processor designs for the Atom X3, however, will be provided by ARM. All three Atom X3 chips will include various Mali GPUs.
For now, the 64-bit capable Atom X3 is only for Android devices, but the LTE version will support Windows 10 phones as well — possibly shaking up Qualcomm’s monopoly so far on Microsoft’s mobile OS it should support up to 14 LTE bands on a single chip. But even the LTE-equipped versions of the Atom X3 should be affordable with devices retailing for under $150.
Anteing up to table stakes
Intel’s been talking up its SoFIA processor since 2013, and it’s different from previous Intel mobile processors because it’s an integrated chip. Although Intel has made processors and separate modems for mobile devices in the past, the Atom X3 integrates them on the same chip, matching similar SoC products from Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others.
Last year, Atom chips started popping up in many tablets — pushing the company to the number two spot in terms of tablet chip market share — running both Android and Windows, but they were bolstered by Intel’s costly decision to essentially subsidize manufacturers using Intel chips. Last fall, Intel also announced an Asus phone with an Intel LTE modem, which also landed in certain tablets. But putting the modem and processor on the same chip is a big leap forward for Intel, and one that opens up many possibilities.
Intel will continue to sell standalone parts for manufacturers, including a new LTE modem, the XMM 7350, as well as separate GPS and NFC controllers.
Intel inside — helped by Rockchip
Intel’s Atom processors are largely fabricated by TSMC, thanks to its 28nm process, instead of in its own fabs. But the Atom X3 marks yet a another subtle change to Intel’s strategy. As expected when the partnership was announced last year, Intel will license some of its intellectual property to Chinese chip maker Rockchip, which also licenses chip designs from ARM, by the way.
Rockchip doesn’t own its own fabs, but it will be responsible for the Atom X3-C3230RK, a quad-core version of the entry level 3G Atom X3, and presumably getting it installed in low-cost Chinese “white-box” devices — something the company specializes in.
Atom chips might be fast, but battery life is up in the air
If you’ve used an Intel-powered Android tablet, you know that its battery life can’t stand up to a ARM-based tablet. That looks like the case for Intel’s new Atom processors too, based on the fact the company is playing up performance instead. Intel compared its Atom X3 to Qualcomm’s low-end Snapdragon 200, and says it is 1.5 times faster, according to benchmarks.
However, you rarely hear smartphone users ask for more raw processing power. Usually, they’d rather have a few more hours of battery life. But Intel hasn’t released power tests for its new chips yet.
Intel hasn’t officially announced the first devices to use its Atom X3 SoC, but it says that “twenty companies” including Asus and Jolla — and probably a good number of less famous Chinese manufacturers like Quanta and Pegatron — will be making them.