Intel Gets Smart with Smartphones

The 15 year anniversary of Intel’s Developers Forum kicked off with a somewhat predictable keynote by Dadi Perlmutter, EVP/GM Intel Architecture Group (Figure 1). We’re so used to Intel hitting it out of the park that the astounding messages bordered on ho-hum: reminding the audience of the pervasiveness of mobile computing; the morphing of the (not-yet-successful) Ultrabook segment into tablets, slates, and convertible variants; Windows8 and touch, gesture, and voice computing; next year’s Haswell 22nm microarchitecture; and a brief mention of future Atom variants. What is 100 percent certain is that Intel’s server (Xeon), desktop and laptop (3rd and soon 4th generation Core) processors will be amazing technology machines that are better than anything available today. And you’ll want one just as soon as they begin shipping in Q12013 because they’ll be cool. Literally.

Figure 1: Intel’s Dadi Perlmutter, EVP/GM Intel Architecture Group opens Day 1 of IDF 2012.

But what was most interesting is what Mr. Perlmutter didn’t say that the whole audience wanted to hear: What’s Intel’s roadmap in low-power, portable devices like smartphones and tablets? He offered only that the “First Wave” of Intel Inside smartphones is now available (Figure 2), with more on the way.

Turns out Intel is like an iceberg with only a bit showing above the waterline. The company merged the Core and Atom design teams this year, emphasizing both the need to focus on low power and SoC solutions, and to solidify the Haswell architecture’s “roadmap-ability” to scale up to server-class performance, while down to low-leakage, high-K power-sipping sleep modes. Five cell phone wins have been announced, all based upon the SoC Atom Z2460 1.6 GHz Medfield platform (Saltwell core): Lenovo, ZTE, Megafon, LAVA and Orange. They all run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich – one revision behind the latest Jelly Bean – except for the Lava which runs 2.3. According to an Intel spokesperson, all are loosely based upon the company’s Smartphone Reference Design , but the Lava most closely resembles the original Intel specs.

Figure 2: Intel announced five smartphone wins at IDF, all based upon the Medfield Atom SoC and Saltwell core.

The Lava XOLO X900, sold in India, uses the Z2460 with Hyper-threading, has 16 GB of NV storage and 1 GB of RAM, and drives a 4.03-inch screen at 1024 x 600 with Intel’s 400 MHz Media Graphics Accelerator running OpenGL ES 2.0 with OpenVG 1.1 support. Its 1460 mAh battery is on the small side but similar to the iPhone 4s (allegedly 1432 mAh), but “should last 6-8 hours”. The China-destined Lenovo, on the other hand uses the same Atom SoC and graphics chip, but the 4.5-inch screen displays 720p content. The phone uses a 1900 mAh battery.

Figure 3: Who knew Intel made modems? The family – available in multiple form factors – originally came from the 2010 Infineon Wireless acquisition.

The other Intel surprise was their wireless modem family (Figure 3), spawned by the 2010 acquisition of Infineon’s wireless group. The company offers modem ICs, dongles, and cores for integration into their own (future) SoCs. The XMM family has a variety of flavors; all five of the smartphones displayed at IDF use Intel’s XMM 6260 HSPA+ 21 Mbits/s down/5.8 Mbit/s up modem. Designed for 2G/3G networks, multimode “Penta-band” support works with multiple worldwide standards: GSM, GPRS, and EDGE (850/900/1800/1900); and HSPA (850/900/1700/1900/2100). These are mixed signal solutions, combining digital and analog baseband in what Intel calls X-GOLD. No small technical feat.

Intel also has a roadmap strategy for “feature phones” (those candy bar phones popularized by Nokia) for the huge portion of the non-connected world that sees no need for a smartphone. Atom SoCs and modems are available for this slice of the mobile market, too.

So the part of the iceberg floating below the water that is publicly visible – Medfield SoCs and mixed signal 3G modems – is hugely impressive and clearly shows Intel’s commitment to low power mobile devices. And these are only the “First Wave”. Clearly Intel knows how to integrate smartphone peripherals, perform baseband signal processing, accelerate and decode/transcode HD graphics, and make a pretty decent low-power smartphone. With Intel writing the Intel Architecture BSP and native code on Android for Google (one of last year’s IDF announcements), the company is well positioned to smartly get into the smartphone game. The Haswell microarchitecture should ratchet down power by 20 times at the system level, said Permutter. We’re anxious to see it applied to the Atom roadmap in the Silvermont microarchitecture.

It’s about time.