Pocket Intel (Part 1)

8/14/2012 3:18:38 PM

Intel enters the smartphone market, and Kevin Pocock takes the call

Intel may once have been denied the chance of copyrighting the letter ‘i’, but in hindsight the failure to make such a brand statement was trivial. Today the name is synonymous with computing and, of course, processors. Well, system, server and notebook processors. Up until now Intel hasn’t been a huge name in the mobile space, but all that seems likely to change.

Description: Intel enters the smartphone market

Intel enters the smartphone market

A good aim

I witnessed what seemed part of the realisation, 32 floors above ground level in Central London. If Intel wanted to make a suggestion as to the height of its ambitions, this was a way to do so. However, the gathered journalists were on-hand to admire only the Orange San Diego. Codenamed Santa Clara, the San Diego is Intel’s first foray into smartphones in Europe, and it’s a rather attainable and, on first glance, impressive one at that.

The San Diego’s no iPhone-beater or Galaxy S3 smasher, but then it’s not supposed to be. Orange confirmed the pricing: Until 24th July, the handset will be free on a $25, 24-month contract and $300 for Pay As You Go customers buying $15 of top-up credit. The immediate desire, or tactic if you prefer, is clear: to provide a good-quality smartphone at a similarly smart price, and to secure a strong foothold in the mid-range market. Whether the San Diego will deliver on the promise is really up to users, but the hardware seems to be doing its best to play the part.

Description: The San Diego is Intel’s first foray into smartphones in Europe

The San Diego is Intel’s first foray into smartphones in Europe

In some hands-on time, I was immediately impressed by the phone’s responsiveness and browsing speed, which when connected to wi-fi took as little as four seconds to load a page. Both of those will be important for Intel and, combined with a smart but understated design and some nice hardware specifications, the handset left many a journalist nodding initial approval.

Up the sleeves

To think of the San Diego as Intel’s wary toe in the water is to ignore the bigger, global picture. Although the smartphone will be the company’s first launch in Europe, form factor reference designs (FFRDs) have been about for some months, and indeed two Medfield (the name of the Intel platform) devices have already been spotted elsewhere in the world.

Description: Lenovo’s K800, the first Medfield device in China

Lenovo’s K800, the first Medfield device in China

First out of the traps was the Xolo 900, launched in India in mid-April. Then at the end of May came Lenovo’s K800, the first Medfield device in China. That makes the San Diego smartphone the third of Intel’s new Medfield-based devices. Yet the San Diego looks very, very similar to the Xolo 900. Why is this important? Partly because it has a touch of the iPhone about it (metallic trim anyone?), but also because it hints at a bigger achievement for Intel. In building such a smart FFRD as a way to showcase the Medfield platform, Intel’s design team has demonstrated an appreciation of smartphone aesthetics, just as the technical specs of the Xolo and San Diego hope to deliver on an appreciation of performance requirements.

Tech in strides

Intel has approached mobile before, though, specifically with Moorestown. In 2010 it was aiming to deliver a platform with a system on chip (S0C) codenamed Lincroft, alongside an OS few will probably even recall, named Moblin. The system would have at its heart a 45nm Intel Atom Z600 processor, and as a ‘Backgrounder’ document from the Intel Archives relates, it was intended to represent “a complete hardware and software platform, making it easier for customers to deliver compelling handheld devices”. That never really happened. Although the platform was shown off in form factor designs and did come to light in a few tablets, several factors including the arrival of 32nm fabrication processes and a particularly strong grip on mobile processing from ARM meant the 45nm Lincroft processor in Moorestown was never to fulfil its potential.

Description: the 45nm Lincroft processor in Moorestown

The 45nm Lincroft processor in Moorestown

Intel learned from that, though, and it seems to be putting Medfield on the same level as its other platform interests. That being the case, it’s not just the San Diego we should be watching carefully. Motorola mobility, now a part of Google, is believed to be preparing an Intel-based SoC device, not necessarily lending itself to the single- core Saltwell processor that is present in the San Diego. Medfield is the platform for the San Diego, but it’s likely to not be the only SoC platform we see from Intel.

I see you

The Medfield platform that the San Diego uses is powered by the Atom Z2460. The CPU side of things is handled by the 1.6GHz Saltwell core, while the GPU growl comes from the 400MHz PowerVR SGX540. Just to delve a little into the graphics side of things, it’s fair to say that the SGX540 is a much-loved graphics counterpart for system-on-chip solutions. It’s not exclusive to Intel by any means, and to give an idea of its credentials members of the PowerVR 5 (SGX) series can be found inside the A4 processors that grace some models of iPhones, iPods and iPads. They’re also present in Texas Instrument’s OMAP SoCs, found in the BlackBerry Playbook, Galaxy Tab and others. The 5 series’ slightly more powerful sibling the 5XT (SGXMP) is utilised in the PlayStation Vita, as well as the iPad 2.

Description: The Medfield platform that the San Diego uses is powered by the Atom Z2460

The Medfield platform that the San Diego uses is powered by the Atom Z2460

Graphically, then, Intel’s SoC should be comparable with SoC solutions produced by ARM and Texas Instruments. The key difference, though, is that Intel’s SoC is based on an architecture it knows well: x86. It’s fair to say that bringing x86 to the smartphone market raises a few questions. Though graphics capabilities will be competitive with many devices, the Atom processors will be directly competing against other SoC providers, meaning that Intel’s cores - the Saltwell core of the San Diego being the first - will be directly competing against the cores of other SoC manufacturers. The fact that Intel is actually launching products consumers can put in their pockets (unlike with Moorestown) should hint that the company is fairly serious about its chances here.

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