At this week's Mobile World Congress 2015, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) finally took the wraps off of its first integrated applications processor and cellular modem products, formerly code-named SoFIA. These products will now fall under the Atom x3 branding, and are intended to help Intel compete profitably in the market for budget tablets, phablets, and smartphones.
Intel has provided details of three parts. The first is the dual-core Atom x3-C3130, aimed at sub-$75 devices. The next is the Atom x3-C3230RK, co-designed by Intel and Rockchip. This is still a 3G-only chip, but it's a quad-core part with better graphics support that is aimed at devices in the $75-$149 range.
The last part is the Atom x3-3440. This is the fastest part of the bunch, features LTE, and is aimed at higher-end devices than either the x3-C3130 or the x3-C3230RK. That said, it's still very much intended for sub-$200 devices.
Let's dig deeper into these devices' specifications and try to figure out just how competitive they'll be in the market.
The entire SoFIA family uncloaked
The x3-C3130 features two Silvermont processor cores running at up to 1GHz, as well as ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) Mali 400MP2 graphics. It supports just a single channel of relatively old LPDDR2 memory, and has an integrated 3G modem. On the accompanying RF chip, Intel has integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GNSS, so it should be suitable for the sub-$75 phone market at which it is aimed.
The x3-C3230RK is a significant step up from the x3-C3130 across the board. CPU core count doubles (with peak frequencies up a bit, to boot), the graphics block is much newer and in a larger configuration, and it adds support for both LPDDR3 and DDR3/DDR3L.
Finally, the x3-C3440 steps it up again with improved CPU performance (up to 1.4GHz instead of 1.2GHz), even better graphics, and LTE category 6 support (since the LTE baseband is derived from the XMM 7260 stand-alone modem). It also can even be paired with Intel's just-announced near-field communication solution.
Two things: ARM graphics and a third-party 28-nanometer process
Note that these SoCs use graphics IP from ARM Holdings. Aicha Evans, Intel vice president and general manager of the company's wireless platform research and development group, clarified on a conference call that ARM graphics were used for time-to-market reasons.
Evans implied that since the SoFIA parts originated in designs in the works at the former Infineon wireless group that Intel acquired, and given that the ARM IP was already being used in those parts, it made sense to keep them in there. Intel did not comment on what graphics IP would be used in future SoFIA products.
When asked about the manufacturing technology used to build these parts, Evans declined to name a particular foundry partner or flavor of 28-nanometer manufacturing technology. However, note the very low clock speeds on the Silvermont cores and that these are highly cost-optimized parts. With these facts in mind, I believe these are built on a 28-nanometer polysilicon process rather than a higher-performing, but more costly, 28-nanometer high-K metal gate process.
How will these stack up against the competition?
Intel provided the following slide offering a performance comparison of the x3-C3130 and x3-C3230RK against solutions from the competition:
Here's a slide showing how the x3-C3440 is expected to stack up:
Obviously, these tests are hardly a complete measure of the performance and features of a mobile chip. For example, no graphics performance tests are included. Additionally, these performance figures are given without power consumption values for Intel's platforms or those of its peers.
That being said, at a glance, Intel appears to have built parts that should be relatively competitive with their peers. However, I don't think these solutions will outclass the completion.
The parts Intel is comparing its new parts against are on the market today. The x3-C3130 and x3-C3230RK should reach the market in the first half of the year, while the x3-C3440 will likely show up in the second half of 2015.
I believe these new chips should fare better in the smartphone market than prior Intel products have, but this rollout is just a first step in what needs to be consistent execution over a number of years.