PCI-SIG “nificant” Changes Brewing in Mobile

PCI-SIG Developers Conference, June 25, 2013, Santa Clara, CA

Of five significant PCI Express announcements made at this week’s PCI-SIG Developers Conference, two are aimed at mobile embedded.

From PCI to PCI Express to Gen3 speeds, the PCI-SIG is one industry consortium that lets no grass grow for long. As the embedded, enterprise and server industries roll out PCIe Gen3 and 40G/100G Ethernet, the PCI-SIG and its key constituents like Cadence, Synopsis, LeCroy and others are readying for another speed doubling to 16 GT/s (giga transfers/second) by 2015. The PCIe 4.0 next step evolves bandwidth to 16Gb/s or a whopping 64 GB/s (big “B”) total lane bandwidth in x16 width. PCIe 4.0 Rev 0.5 will be available Q1 2014 with Rev 0.9 targeted for Q1 2015.

Table of major PCI-SIG announcements at Developers Conference 2013

Table of major PCI-SIG announcements at Developers Conference 2013

Yet as “SIG-nificant” as this announcement is, PCI-SIG president Al Yanes said it’s only one of five major news items. The others include: a PCIe 3.1 specification that consolidates a series of ECNs in the areas of power, performance and functionality; PCIe Outside the Box which uses a 1-3 meter “really cheap” copper cable called PCIe OCuLink with an 8G bit rate; plus two embedded and mobile announcements that I’m particularly enthused about. Refer to the table for a snapshot.

New M.2 Specification

The new M.2 specification is a small, mobile embedded form factor designed to replace the previous “Mini PCI” in Mini Card and Half Mini Card sizes. The newer, as-yet-publicly-unreleased M.2 card will be smaller in size and volume but is intended to provide scalable PCIe performance to allow designers to tune SWaP and I/O requirements. PCI-SIG marketing workgroup chair Ramin Neshati told me that M.2 is part of the PCI-SIG’s increased focus on mobile.

The scalable M.2 card is designed as an I/O plug in for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, WAN/cellular, SSD and other connectivity in platforms including ultrabook, tablet, and “maybe even smartphone,” said Neshati. At Rev 0.7 now, Rev 0.9 will be released soon and the final (Rev 1.0?) spec will become public by Q4 2013.

PCI-SIG M.2 card form factor

The PCI-SIG’s impending M.2 form factor is designed for mobile embedded ultrabooks, tablets, and possibly smartphones. The card will have a scalable PCIe interface and is designed for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, SSD and more. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

Mobile PCIe (M-PCIe)

Seeing the momentum in mobile and the interest in a PCIe on-board interconnect lead the PCI-SIG to work with the MIPI Alliance and create Mobile PCI Express: M-PCIe. The specification is now available to PCI-SIG members and creates an “adapted PCIe architecture” bridge between regular PCIe and MIPI M-PHY.

The Mobile PCI Express (M-PCIe) specification targets mobile embedded devices like smartphones to provide high-speed, on-board PCIe connectivity. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

The Mobile PCI Express (M-PCIe) specification targets mobile embedded devices like smartphones to provide high-speed, on-board PCIe connectivity. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG.)

Using the MIPI M-PHY physical layer allows smartphone and mobile designers to stick with one consistent user interface across multiple platforms, including already-existing OS drivers. PCIe support is “baked into Windows, iOS, Android,” and others, says PCI-SIG’s Neshati.  PCI Express also has a major advantage when it comes to interoperability testing, which runs from the protocol stack all the way down to the electrical interfaces. Taken collectively, PCIe brings huge functionality and compliance benefits to the mobile space.

M-PCIe supports MIPI’s Gear 1 (1.25-1.45 Gbps), Gear 2 (2.5-2.9 Gbps) and Gear 3 (5.0-5.8 Gbps) speeds. As well, the M-PCIe spec provides power optimization for short channel mobile platforms, primarily aimed at WWAN front end radios, modem IP blocks, and possibly replacing MIPI’s own universal file storage UFS mass storage interface (administered by JEDEC).

M-PCIe by the PCI-SIG can be used in multiple high speed paths in a smartphone mobile device. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG and MIPI Alliance.)

M-PCIe by the PCI-SIG can be used in multiple high speed paths in a smartphone mobile device. (Courtesy: PCI-SIG and MIPI Alliance.)

PCI Express Ready for More

More information on these five announcements will be rolling out soon. But it’s clear that the PCI-SIG sees mobile and embedded as the next target areas for PCI Express in the post-PC era, while still not abandoning the standard’s bread and butter in PCs and high-end/high-performance servers.


Tizen OS for Smartphones – Intel’s Biggest Bet Yet

Tizen HTML5 from Intel and Linux Foundation to be used by Samsung handsets in 2013 mobile.

Figure 1: Intel and the Linux Foundation collaborated on Tizen, an open source HTML5-based platform for smartphones, IVI, and other embedded devices.

[Update on 27 February 2013: At the recent 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung demoed a development handset running Tizen. CNET editor Luke Westaway posted a video review of the device which showed snappy performance, Android-like features, but felt that the early version was "a bit rough around the edges". Still, to see Tizen running on actual consumer hardware gives it cred.  A larger review by CNET's Roger Cheng can be found here: http://cnet.co/15R8xs3 ]

[8 Jan 2013 Update: Added "Disclosure" below and fixed some typos.]

Disclosure: As of 8 Jan 2013, I became a paid blogger for Intel’s ‘Roving Reporter’ embedded Intelligent Systems Alliance (edc.intel.com). But my opinion here is my own, and I call it like I see it.

Samsung hedges Apple, Google bets with Intel’s HTML5-based Tizen

Just when you thought the smartphone OS market was down to a choice between iOS and Android, Intel-backed Tizen jumps into the fray (Figure 1).  Tizen is Intel’s next kick at the can for mobile, and it’s joining several OS wannabes:  Microsoft Windows Phone 8, RIM Blackberry’s whatever-they’re-going-to-announce on 31 January 2013, and eventually Ubuntu phone platform.

Figure 2: On 3 January 2013 Ubuntu announced a plan to offer a smartphone OS. Key feature: use the phone as a computing platform and even drive a desktop monitor.

Samsung  Prepares to “Date” Other Partners

Samsung Electronics announced on 3 January that it will start selling smartphones sometime this year using Tizen as the OS platform. Samsung’s spokesperson didn’t elaborate on timing or models, but said in an emailed statement ”We plan to release new, competitive Tizen devices…and keep expanding the lineup.”

Tizen is the third incarnation of Intel’s attempts at building an embedded ecosystem which included MeeGo and Moblin. Tizen, in collaboration with The Linux Foundation, was announced mid-2011 and has been quietly gestating in the background and is now on Release 2.0. One of the largest supporters of Tizen is Samsung, so the recent announcement is no surprise.

Samsung no doubt seeks a back-up plan as Google’s Android OS has flown past Apple’s iOS as the predominant operating system for mobile devices  plus tablets (75%; Figure 3).

Figure 3: Android is now the predominant smartphone OS in 2012, according to IDC. (Source: IDC; http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS23818212 ).

As Samsung is now the world’s largest smartphone supplier (Figure 4), the company might be following a play from Apple in seeking to control more of its own destiny through Tizen.

Figure 4: IC Insights – and most other analyst firms – rank Samsung as the world’s largest smartphone supplier. This data is from 28 November 2012.(Source: IC Insights; http://www.icinsights.com/news/bulletins/Samsung-And-Apple-Set-To-Dominate-2012-Smartphone-Market/)

And with Samsung and Apple’s patent dispute nastiness, along with rumblings over whether Samsung may or may not continue to supply processors for iPhones, Tizen represents one more way for Samsung to control their own destiny separate from Google and Apple.

Intel’s Mobile Imperative Needs HTML5

Intel, on the other hand, desperately needs more wins in the mobile space.  Last year I blogged how the company gained some traction by announcing several Atom (Medfield) SoC-based handset wins,  but the company has gone on record stating their real goal is to be inside mobile devices from Apple, Samsung or both. In fact, it’s a bet-the-farm play for Intel and it most likely pushed Intel CEO Paul Otellini into his future retirement plans.

The general embedded market is closely following what happens in mobile, adopting low-power ARM SoCs and Atom CPUs, using wireless Wi-Fi and NFC radios for M2M nodes, and deploying Android for both headed and headless systems such as POS and digital signage. If Tizen moves the needle in smartphones for Samsung, chances are it’ll be used by other players. With HTML5, it will be straightforward to port applications and data across hardware platforms – a goal that Intel’s EVP Renee James  touted at 2012′s Intel Developers Forum (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Intel’s Renee James is betting on HTML5 in Tizen to kickstart transparent computing. (Image taken by author at IDF 2012.)


Tizen is based upon HTML5 with plans to achieve the old Java “write once, run anywhere” promise.   For Intel, the Tizen SDK and API means that applications written for the most popular mobile processors – such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon or nVidia’s Tegra 3 – could easily run on Intel processors. In fact, at IDF Intel posited a demo of a user’s application running first on a home PC, then a smart phone, then a connected in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system, and then finally on an office platform. Intel’s Renee James explained that it matters not what underlying hardware runs the application – HTML5 allows seamless migration across any and all devices.

Tizen Stakes for Intel and Samsung

This pretty much sums up the Tizen vision, both for Intel and for Samsung. Tizen means freedom, as it abstracts the hardware from any application.

If successful, Tizen opens up processor sockets to Intel as mobile vendors swap CPUs. Tizen also allows Samsung to choose any processor, while relying on open source and open standards-based code supported by The Linux Foundation.

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.