Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) has certainly come a long way in the ultra-mobile processor space. Back in 2008 when the company was demonstrating its power-guzzling, multiple-chip solution for mobile Internet devices known as Moorestown, the company's offerings were, for lack of a better word, a joke. However, by early 2012, Intel had finally put out a chip suitable for use in a modern smartphone, which it called Medfield.
It wasn't the world's fastest smartphone processor, nor was it the world's lowest-power processor, but it shipped in a few designs and it proved that Intel could actual make chips for this space, even if it would be a while before it could claim leadership.
Intel's next step, known as Clover Trail+, was even more compelling. It brought a dual-core solution and a very competitive graphics solution. Again, it wasn't at the top of the pack in terms of performance and power, particularly as it was largely a beefed up version of the same old design, but it further narrowed the gap with its contemporaries such as the Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Snapdragon and the Samsung Exynos.
Can Intel's next generation platform, Merrifield, finally pull out in front?
What is Merrifield?
To get the codenames straight, understand that Merrifield is the name of Intel's next-generation smartphone platform as a whole. The system-on-chip that powers it is called Tangier.
While the specifications on it are relatively scarce, it is known that it will be a dual-core design based on Intel's new Silvermont low-power cores. It will sport some variant of Imagination Technologies' (LSE:IMG) PowerVR Series 6 GPU, just like Apple's A7 does. And it and should be low-power enough to fit into 4-inch phones.
The system-on-chip itself will likely be paired with the firm's XMM 7160 LTE modem platform in the initial first-quarter 2014 launch, and then the next iteration of the platform will come paired with Intel's XMM 7260 LTE-Advanced modem by late first half/early second half of 2014.
So, will it be competitive?
At first glance, it wouldn't seem that a dual-core Silvermont would do particularly well in CPU performance against a quad-core Snapdragon 800. But there's a nuance to be aware of here.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 has not yet been spotted in smartphones with screens smaller than 5 inches. Interestingly enough, though, recent reports (from both AnandTech and Ars Technica) suggest that even the Nexus 5 -- a 5-inch device based on the Snapdragon 800 -- throttles quite quickly when faced with a daunting CPU task.
Further, Ars Technica showed that the Galaxy Note 3 (which is a larger device with a 5.7-inch display) holds up better in this regard than the Nexus 5, implying that larger phones can handle the heat output of this monster chip better than smaller ones.
In fact, Intel claimed at its Silvermont processor architecture disclosure (the processor core found inside of Merrifield) that its latest mobile processor design can offer between 1.5 and 2.1 times the performance of its high-end quad-core competitors in a dual core configuration when core power is limited to 1 watt. In larger phones that can support greater heat output, the Snapdragon 800 is likely to be the better performer. However, Merrifield looks as though it will be competitive in devices with more stringent power constraints.
That said, it’s important to understand what Merrifield will be going up against.
Against a Snapdragon 600, which has four relatively weak Krait 300 cores, it could even up the score in terms of performance, but be much lower-power and fit into smaller devices. The only issue will be the lack of an LTE-Advanced modem paired with the initial incarnation of the platform. Still, LTE-A networks have barely begun to roll out, so this isn't a huge deal, and that gets fixed by the end of the first half of 2014.
Foolish bottom line
Depending on a few factors, it looks as though Intel's next-generation Merrifield platform will be quite competitive in iPhone-class hardware. Perhaps it's not the best choice for a very large, high-end handset, but there's no reason why it can't gain some real traction in the rest of the world's high-end handsets.
At the end of the day, this is a marathon and not a sprint. As long as Intel can, in its third smartphone system-on-chip, deliver something that can garner a number of key design wins, then shareholders have quite a lot to look forward to.