At Mobile World Congress, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) finally launched its very first integrated cellular baseband and applications processor chips under the Atom x3 branding, which you can read more about here. These processors are built on a third-party 28-nanometer process (which I believe to be a relatively low-performing 28-nanometer polysilicon process) and are generally nothing to write home about performance wise.
They are, however, cheap, and if performance claims hold up in the real world, they should be pretty competent products for the markets Intel is aiming to enter. Competent is okay, but in order for a relative newcomer to actually make a splash, Intel is going to need something impressive.
And that is where the 2016 Atom x3 and x5 parts kick in.
SoFIA LTE 2 and SoFIA MID could be best-in-class
Back in 2013, Intel talked about how it expected its mid-2015 part, known as Broxton, to offer best-in-class performance for "hero" devices. However, that part might not have the integration required to successfully compete against the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 in the first half of 2016.
However, Intel does plan to launch a low-end part known as SoFIA LTE 2 (it should fall under the Atom x3 branding) and the mid-range SoFIA MID (which I suspect will be an Atom x5 branded part) at some point in 2016. These will be built on 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, and they will have integrated LTE basebands. I believe that these parts have the potential to be quite compelling in their respective market segments.
First, the SoFIA LTE 2
The first SoFIA LTE part (Atom x3-C3440) that Intel talked about at Mobile World Congress (but will not be available until mid-2015) comes with up to four Silvermont CPU cores running at up to 1.4GHz and ARM Mali-T720 MP2 graphics.
That is on a pretty old 28-nanometer process.
When Intel moves this product family to 14-nanometer (which should enable much more performance), the company will be able to do the following right off the bat:
- Increase clock speeds on the CPU from 1.4GHz to potentially 2GHz+
- Move to a much larger graphics block than the ARM Mali-T720 MP2 thanks to what should be a multi-generation jump in transistor density with the 14-nanometer process. A higher end ARM or Imagination graphics block would make sense here if Intel's own graphics are not suitable
- Include much more robust video processor, image signal processor, sensor hub, and other features while maintaining a very tight cost/area footprint
If Intel can this product out, in devices, in the first half of 2016, then by virtue of being able to use the advanced 14-nanometer process in cost-effective devices (something that may be difficult for competitors to do), the company could have a very competitive product in this market.
How about SoFIA MID?
Intel also talked about a product known as SoFIA MID. This, too, will be a part built on 14-nanometer manufacturing technology. Interestingly enough, although Intel does not technically have a comparable product in the market today (mid-range applications processor and modem), we can actually get a hint as to what kind of performance and features to expect from it.
Today, Intel is taking its high-end oriented Cherry Trail part, disabling and reducing features and performance, and calling it a mid-range part. It still does not have an integrated modem, and it will not go into a smartphone, but what Intel is offering there gives us a hint of the kind of performance we are likely to see.
For example, the Atom x5-8300 (the mid-range part Intel is selling today) features four Airmont CPU cores running at up to 1.84GHz, 12 Gen. 8 graphics cores running at up to 500MHz, single-channel memory, and support for an eight megapixel camera.
If Intel is going to build something better than this, and if it is going to make it suitable for both mid-range phones and tablets, I would imagine the company would need to build something along the lines of:
- Four Goldmont CPU cores at >2GHz max turbo (Airmont CPU core does not look like it will be potent enough to fight the mid-range ARM offerings in 2015, let alone the 2016 parts)
- >=16 Gen. 9 graphics cores (the exact number depends on the architectural enhancements Intel makes in Gen. 9 over Gen. 8)
- >= 21MP camera support
- HEVC video capture and playback support
- Category 10 LTE-Advanced modem
Whether Intel does actually build something like this, and whether it gets it out in time to still be a leadership product within the mid-range phone/tablet segment (i.e. first half of 2016) remains to be seen.
At any rate, I think Intel's 2016 mobile products should be far more competitive than its 2015 lineup. The big unknown at this point is whether these products will be competitive enough to drive meaningful revenue and profit upside for the company -- something that should become clearer at the Intel investor meeting in November.