At Mobile World Congress, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is announcing its next generation mid-range and performance tablet platform, formerly codenamed Cherry Trail. These chips are built on the low-power variant of Intel's 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, and will power tablets based on the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows operating system as well as Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android.
With that in mind, let's take a look at what Intel is bringing to the table with these parts, which will be branded Atom x5 and Atom x7.
The tech specs
The x7-8700 is the most fully featured part, with four Airmont CPU cores running at up to 2.4GHz, 16EU Gen8 graphics at up to 600MHz, and support for up to 8GB of LPDDR3. The x5 parts are similar to the x7, but have fewer graphics units enabled (12 versus 16), run the CPUs at lower frequencies, and in the case of the x5-8300 runs the GPU at lower frequencies.
These parts don't have integrated connectivity, but Intel offers stand-alone cellular, Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, and NFC chips that can be included as part of the platform. The image signal processors in the x7-8700 and the x5-8500 support up to a 13-megapixel camera (implying a similar image signal processor to the one found in Moorefield). The x5-8300 can only support up to an 8-megapixel camera.
Performance improvement in graphics, no gain in CPU
Intel didn't offer too much in the way of actual performance numbers, but it did offer the following slide:
Intel claims a two times improvement in the now-deprecated GFXBench 2.7 (making it tough to compare with other modern chips), and a 50% improvement in 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Note that 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited is a test that consists of two subtests: graphics and physics.
The former tests the capabilities of the graphics engine on the chip, while the latter is more CPU based. If we do a rough estimate, if Intel is claiming a two times increase in graphics, and a 1.5 times increase in a test that's half graphics bound and half CPU bound, then this implies that the x7-8700 offers little to no improvement in CPU performance over the prior generation Z3795.
This would be in-line with the recent x7-8700 results that have appeared in the Geekbench 3 processor benchmark database. It's looking pretty clear that Airmont is not much more than straight process shrink of Silvermont, which is pretty bad from a competitive perspective given the rapid architectural improvements that ARM and its partners continue to make each generation.
Who's using these chips?
According to Intel, devices based on the new Atom x5 and Atom x7 chips will be available in the first half of 2015. Devices are expected to come from traditional Intel partners such as ASUS, Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba, Acer, and HP.
Competitive analysis and positioning
The lack of CPU performance uplift is going to hurt these new chips relative to the ARM based competition. I expect that in terms of performance, most Cortex A17, A57, and A72 solutions should offer greater peak CPU performance than Intel is offering with Airmont.
In terms of graphics, the top x7-8700 part is likely to fall behind modern ARM Mali-T760 and Imagination PowerVR Series 6XT solutions. I also expect higher-end Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Adreno graphics to outperform what Intel is delivering with the x7-8700.
In other words, I don't expect these new Atom products to be particularly competitive on performance with the top ARM-based system-on-chip solutions. By virtue of being built on Intel's 14-nanometer technology, these chips should offer strong power consumption, and the die size of the chip should be small, so, if Intel's 14-nanometer yields are in good shape, these parts should be relatively cost effective.
Notice how Intel is positioning these parts. The x5 and x7 parts (with optional discrete modem) are intended to scale from $250 tablets to devices costing north of $350. The lower end x5 (in a Wi-Fi only configuration) is expected to power tablets in what looks to be the $200-$249 range.
The key insight here is that Intel isn't trying to push these parts into the "entry" space, where it tried to push the prior generation Bay Trail. This is a strong indication that Intel won't need to provide anywhere near as much (if any) contra-revenue dollars with these platforms, since these are relatively higher end platforms targeted at tablets that can support a higher end platform bill of materials.
I expect that these parts will do well in Windows tablets and convertibles (since Intel is really the only competitive game in the Windows world). The performance uplift from Bay Trail in graphics should be enough to enable a wider range of 3D games, which could be quite a valuable selling point.
In the $150-and-up Android space, I would imagine designs that had Bay Trail chips before will be updated to these new x5/x7chips, but I think the competitive pressures here will be much tougher. This might limit Intel's pricing power on these chips, which may need to be sold at a discount to competing chips to gain traction.