Why These New Intel-Powered Phones Are So Exciting

Ask anybody what the most compelling phone is for under $200 (unsubsidized) and a common answer you may get is the Motorola (now owned by Lenovo (NASDAQOTH: LNVGY  ) ) Moto G. This is a $179 gem of a phone that sports a Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) Snapdragon 400, a 1280x720 display, 1GB of RAM, 8GB or 16GB of storage, and a host of other compelling features for the price point. Interestingly enough, this phone looks like it's about to get some interesting competition from ASUS.

The ASUS ZenFone -- a trio of Moto G competitors
In order to capitalize on emerging market demand for inexpensive smartphones, ASUS has built a trio of extremely inexpensive smartphones: the ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5, and the ZenFone 6. As you can probably guess, these are 4-inch, 5-inch, and 6-inch phones, respectively, and come at price points of $99, $149, and $199. So, what do you get for each of those price points?

Source: ASUS

Well, the ZenFone 4 comes with an Atom Z2520 from Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) , a low-end dual core/quad threaded 1.2GHz Atom with an Imagination (LSE: IMG  ) PowerVR SGX 544MP2 GPU running at 300MHz, and 1GB of RAM. The ZenFone 5 and 6 bump the screen sizes up, sport the much faster Atom Z2580 (the CPU clock is bumped up to 2GHz from 1.2GHz, and the GPU runs at 533MHz), and increase the screen resolution to 1280x720. The 6-inch variant comes with 2GB of RAM while the 5-inch packs only 1GB. The 5-inch variant is probably the most directly comparable to the Moto G.

How will the ASUS products match up?
Let's be clear -- Motorola has far more brand cachet than ASUS does in smartphones. Further, the Moto G has been shipping for quite some time while the ASUS was just announced and is probably going to be shipping soon. That being said, the comparison gets interesting on a technical level. The Moto G's Snapdragon 400 sports a quad core Cortex A7 with an Adreno 305 GPU, while its principal competitor -- the ZenFone 5 -- sports dual Intel Saltwell cores with the aforementioned SGX 544MP2.

Fortunately enough, while I have requested a review sample of the ZenFone 5/6 and have a Moto G on the way (in order to do a more detailed comparison), there are publicly available numbers for both the Moto G and other devices (such as the Lenovo K900) that allow us to get a preliminary comparison. Indeed, take a look at the results from the wildly popular Geekbench 3 CPU benchmark. It is not perfect by any means, but it gives us a rough ballpark of what kind of performance to expect:

Source: Primate Labs

On a per core basis, the old 32-nanometer Atom absolutely demolishes the Snapdragon 400 as far as single-threaded CPU performance goes -- and it is single-threaded performance that matters in most mobile applications (since most apps can't use more than 1-2 cores). In graphics performance using the popular GFXBench 3.0, the Lenovo K900 (which sports the same SoC as the upcoming ZenFone 5) does exceptionally well against the Moto G, nearly doubling the latter's performance:

Source: GFXBench

There is some real value here
At these price points, at least from a features/performance perspective, the ASUS ZenFone 5 looks to be a rather potent contender against the already awesome Moto G. While it is not likely that these phones will sell in crazy volumes (remember, ASUS is not a well-established name in phones), this is the sort of thing that will at least get people's attention, particularly in the very cost-sensitive markets.

If Intel can keep driving down the integration in its low-cost SoCs, as well as the platform bill of materials, then it can really make a splash in the value/mainstream portion of the smartphone market. The Clover Trail+ platform, while old and pretty lacking in integration, shows Intel has the capability to deliver solid performance at compelling price points. Intel and its partners just need to really run with it.

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