On Nov. 5, I speculated that Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) was unlikely to power the next generation of ASUS' ZenFone products. The argument was simple: Intel's integrated applications processor and LTE baseband solution, known as SoFIA LTE, would not be available in time to power the low-cost smartphones from ASUS.
However, Focus Taiwan (via Phone Arena) reported that ASUS CEO Jerry Shen has stated that Intel will indeed power a next generation set of ZenFones. Additionally, the report said all of these Intel-powered phones will feature LTE connectivity.
Here's what's going on
The basis of my previous argument was that Intel's solutions were not suitable for low-cost phones such as today's ZenFones (which range in cost from $99 to $199), likely due to the lack of integration and what is probably a relatively high platform bill of materials. I also argued that LTE-capable Intel solutions that didn't have these issues would not be ready for a reported launch at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2015.
Well, once again according to the Focus Taiwan report, these Intel-powered ZenFones will start at $300 -- significantly higher than even the most expensive ZenFone model today. Additionally, the report said ASUS will release ZenFones not powered by Intel chips that will be "priced at around $150."
In other words, the assumption that Intel's chips would be unsuitable for very low-cost smartphones was correct. My mistake was in assuming ASUS would not develop a more "premium" tier of ZenFones.
Will these be powered by Intel's Moorefield?
Given that SoFIA 3G would be unsuitable for a $300+ smartphone as the performance is likely to be far below what other phones in this price range offer, and given that SoFIA LTE won't be available until later in 2015, it seems the next generation of ZenFones will be powered by Intel's Merrifield and/or Moorefield platforms launched earlier this year. Given that "quad core" is seemingly a must in this market, I'd bet on Moorefield (which packs a quad-core chip).
If I had to guess, I'd bet the new ZenFone 4 will feature an Atom Z3530, the ZenFone 5 an Atom Z3570, and then the ZenFone 6 would get the cream-of-the-crop Atom Z3580. What isn't as clear is what cellular modem ASUS would pair these chips with.
A reasonable guess is that ASUS will use Intel's latest XMM 7260 LTE-Advanced slim modem. It is far more featured than Intel's XMM 7160 and is built on a more sophisticated manufacturing process, which should allow the 7260 to offer lower power consumption than the 7160.
Does this matter?
According to DigiTimes, ASUS aims to ship 16 million ZenFones next year, and I would expect that a decent portion of those will be Intel-powered. However, there are a lot of unknowns here. We have no idea how much Intel is getting per smartphone platform, nor do we know what percentage of ASUS' ZenFones will use Intel processors.
In fact, we don't even know if ASUS will hit its shipment target.
It's nice that Intel will power upcoming ZenFones, but this single data point isn't enough to give investors much insight into the progress the chipmaker is making in the phone market. However, investors likely will get a significant update on Intel's phone progress and 2015 expectations at the company's Nov. 20 investor meeting.