SoFIA, Cherry Trail Make Debuts

Intel is taking the wraps off the new Atom line up that includes SoFIA processors and the new Cherry Trail platform.

Mobile World Congress is traditionally dominated by Samsung, Qualcomm, HTC, and others yet Intel continues to make in-roads into the mobile market. Though the company has admittedly lost a lot of money during this growing process, Intel pushes forward with today's announcement of a trio of new processor lines that keep the Atom brand. The Atom x3, the Atom x5, and the Atom x7 will be the company's answer in 2015 for a wide range of products, starting at the sub-$75 phone market and stretching up to ~$400 tablets and all-in-ones.

There are some significant differences in these Atom processors, more than the naming scheme might indicate.

Intel Atom x3 SoFIA Processor

For years now we have questioned Intel's capability to develop a processor that could fit inside the thermal envelope that is required for a smartphone while also offering performance comparable to Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others. It seemed that the x86 architecture was a weight around Intel's ankles rather than a float lifting it up. Intel's answer was the development of SoFIA, (S)mart (o)r (F)eature phone with (I)ntel (A)rchitecture. The project started about 2 years ago leading to product announcements finally reaching us today. SoFIA parts are "designed for budget smartphones; SoFIA is set to give Qualcomm and MediaTek a run for their money in this rapidly growing part of the market."

The SoFIA processors are based on the same Silvermont architecture as the current generation of Atom processors, but they are more tuned for power efficiency. Originally planned to be a dual-core only option, Intel has actually built both dual-core and quad-core variants that will pair with varying modem options to create a combination that best fit target price points and markets. Intel has partnered with RockChip for these designs, even though the architecture is completely IA/x86 based. Production will be done on a 28nm process technology at an unnamed vendor, though you can expect that to mean TSMC. This allows RockChip access to the designs, to help accelerate development, and to release them into the key markets that Intel is targeting.

Shipping with 3G and LTE modems, this marks Intel's first SoC that will include communications and modem logic. These processors are 64-bit enabled, will support both Windows Mobile and Android operating systems, and will be the first Intel parts to utilize Mali graphics licensed from ARM. The lowest cost Atom x3-C3130 will ship with 3G connectivity and a dual-core processor peaking at 1.0 GHz clock speed. Both the 3G-R and the LTE (x3-C3230RK and x3-C3440) use quad-core SoFIA implementations with a 1.2 GHz and 1.4 GHz clock speed.

Intel Atom x3 Processor Configurations

Initial performance estimates are, for now, just that: estimates. In this slide, Intel compares the Atom x3-C3440 processor against the Snapdragon 410 (MSM8916) and a quad-core Cortex-A53 running at 1.2 GHz. As you would expect, Intel's CPU wins. Estimated performance of the MediaTek SoC using quad A53 processors (as high as 1.5 GHz) are included too. Still, note that Intel only supplied results for a single benchmark, MobileXPRT, which is one that Intel has been trumpeting for 18+ months to press.

We don't yet have information on shipping time frames or products, but Intel did show a slide with numerous partnerships in line for the Atom x3. You've likely heard of very few of the partner companies, though. They are focused significantly on the Asia markets, where the growth of low-cost parts is significantly higher than Europe and North America.

Intel Atom x5 and x7 – Cherry Trail

In a more traditional Atom processor announcement, the Atom x5 (Z8500 / Z8300) and x7 (Z8700) parts are based on Cherry Trail and a new core architecture called Airmont. As a successor to Silvermont, albeit based on Intel's latest 14nm process technology, the GPU portion of Cherry Trail will see the most significant performance improvements compared to current shipping parts.

These processors support 64-bit operating systems and include Intel 8th generation HD graphics, the same used in the Broadwell consumer processors available today. Obviously full, x86 Windows support is built-in, but Intel also will be pushing Android on them.

Intel Atom x5 and x7 Processor Platform Block Diagram

Compared to the Atom Z3975 at 1.59 GHz, an Atom x7-8700 running at 2.4 GHz is going to be about 2x faster in the GFXBench T-Rex benchmark and about 50% faster in 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Other than that metric, Intel isn't talking about the performance improvements of Cherry Trail but instead is focusing on the user experience, touting Intel RealSense, WiDi, and TrueKey as the reasons users will want this platform over others.

ASUS, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba have all signed on to build devices based on the Atom x5 and x7, many due out before the middle of the year.

Along with the Atom x5 and Atom x7, Intel is promoting the use of the XMM 7360, an Cat-6 LTE modem capable of 450 Mbps downlink and carrier aggregation. This is a discrete modem, not built onto the same die or substrate as we saw with the Atom x3. Intel was honest on the conference call about this modem, acknowledging that though they are behind the leader, Qualcomm, in this space, the goal is to be months behind rather than years.

By the end of 2015, the Atom line will have been completely refreshed and revamped. Despite my demands that Intel move away from the name 'Atom' a couple of years back with the announcement of the Silvermont architecture, they are making good on the goals it continues to set for itself, even though all parties will admit that delays have hindered Intel's progression. Whether or not Intel has an answer for processors targeted at flagship smartphones is still in doubt though, and that might be the one gap that the company has in its lineup.