Intel wades into smartphone wars
Moorestown Atom claims ARM-busting chops
Intel has introduced its second-generation ultra-mobile Atom processor, and the chip giant is telling the world that its new offering is targeted directly into the heart of today's hottest mobile market: smartphones.
Until this week, the anticipated market for the three-chip lineup known as Moorestown was floating unmoored  between netbooks and smartphones, seemingly destined for that never-realized product category known as the mobile internet device, or MID.
No more. Intel is positioning Moorestown as a smartphone world-beater.
"Up until now, we haven't really talked about Moorestown as an entry into smartphones," Anand Chandrasekher, head of Intel's Ultra Mobility Group, told a gathering of reporters in San Francisco on Tuesday. "We've talked about it in other devices. We wanted to get all of our power numbers together and get some convincing footprints from our customers. And now we're ready to talk about it. It's really our first foot in the door. And we think we're there from a power standpoint, and we certainly exceed all of our competition from a performance standpoint."
Chandrasekher took direct aim at claims that Intel has missed the smartphone boat. "There does appear to be some confusion which has been fueled a bit by our competitors," he said. "They tend to like to take our netbook product line and compare it to their [smartphone] product line, and it's amusing because we've never really said that we had a smartphone offering until today."
He did admit that Intel was late out of the gate in regard to power-miserliness, but he said that the company has now caught up. "Breaking that power barrier on Intel architecture was not a physical barrier. It's not a physics barrier. It is just something that Intel had not put its mind to. We did not focus on that. We were focused on other aspects of our business. We did not focus on power as a barrier that we wanted to blow away. But when we focused our mind on it, we delivered. In style."
Intel's chief Atom architect Belliappa Kuttanna - who Chandrasekher introduced as "the god of Atom" - provided extensive details on the power-management techniques of the Moorestown platform, which extends the power-gating technologies seen in the first generation of the ultra-mobile Atoms, codenamed Menlow, to include such niceties as an almost-everything-off state that consumes a mere 100 microwatts.
Key to the power savings, according to Kuttanna, is platform-level operating system power management (OSPM) technology that manages not just the processor die (formerly code-named Lincroft), but also the IO controller (Langwell), the mixed-signal IC (Briertown) and other aspects of the platform.
Quoted battery life in a typical smartphone form factor built around Moorestown, according to Chandrasekher, would be approximately 10 days of standby life, two days of audio, five hours of 720p and four hours of 1080p video, five hours of web browsing, and six hours of 3G talk time.
Chandrasekher went to great lengths to explain that when Intel quotes power specs for the Moorestown platform, it doesn't merely mean power to its chips. Holding up his BlackBerry, he said: "When we talk about numbers - all our numbers are measured numbers - this is what I call a platform. All the electronics that go into this are what is being measured at the platform level. It includes the display, it includes the memory, it includes our chips, it includes every single piece of electronics in here when we're measuring power. When we say 'idle power reduction at the platform level,' that's what we mean."
And that idle power for the Moorestown platform, according to Chandrasekher, is "21-ish milliwatts". That's less than one fiftieth the 1.2 to 1.4 watts idle power required by the previous-generation Menlow - which, not to put too fine a point on it, never had much success .
Chandrasekher also wanted the assembled reporters to tell their readers that low power doesn't translate to low performance. To illustrate his point, he compared a Moorestown-based prototype smartphone with three unnamed smartphones in today's market. "These three devices are three of the best smartphones that are there in the market - best not necessarily by our measure, best as measured by you guys."
He also pointed out that Moorestown can display full 1080p HD playback at base profile, main profile, and high profile - all at 30fps, a feat that none of the "best" smartphones can accomplish, he claimed.
Of course, not knowing the provenance of the comparative phones makes Chandrasekher's claimed performance improvements hard to judge - but he was adamant about keeping their identities secret. "I will not [give] names - I know you are dying to get names - because we would actually like to have these guys as customers, and it probably wouldn't be in my best interests to piss them off."
Architecturally, Moorestown's details have been known for some time, as documented in detail  by RegHardware back in October. In sum, the 45nm Lincroft compute core is joined by an on-chip bus interface (which has, like seemingly everything these days, a "turbo mode"), 3D graphics, display controller, video encode/decode circuitry, and memory controller. Burst compute performance is supported as well as hyperthreading.
The graphics and video circuitry are Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX and VXD respectively, Kuttanna told The Reg. The display circuitry can support 1366 x 768 resolution when using LVDS, and 1024 x 600 when using MIPI. Two cameras can be attached - a five-megapixel shooter and a VGA video-conferencer.
Lincroft - now dubbed the Atom Z6XX Series - will be available in speeds of up to 1.5GHz for smartphones and 1.9GHz for tablets. It's joined by the platform controller hub MP20, formerly Langwell, and the mixed-signal IC (MSIC) that was designed by Intel but is being manufactured by Freescale, Maxim, and Renesas.
As might be guessed, Chandrasekher thinks he has a winner on his hands. "We're delivering better performance - roughly 2 to 4X when you look at it across a range of benchmarks - and when you look at our power consumption we're effectively in the pack. On some things we're better, on some things we're worse, but overall we're in the pack."
He noted that the earliest devices will support Moblin and will later transition to MeeGo. "Expect to see Android devices hitting the market as well," he noted.
But despite his enthusiasm, Chandrasekher refused to say which smartphone vendors have climbed aboard Intel's new smartphone bandwagon:
"We're not going talk about customers today," he said. "The reason that we're not going to talk about customers is not because we don't have customers. We do - a lot of them. The reason I don't want to talk about customers today is [because] the customers in this domain are much more secretive about what they're doing with their products and their product timelines. And we'll respect that. And they will talk about their products on their own timeline."
Those timelines may be revealed soon. Chandrasekher said that the parts are in production now - "We've actually shipped for revenue already" - with devices due to appear beginning in the second half of this year. Pricing was not announced, though an Intel spokeswoman said that pricing will be comparable to typical smartphone-centric parts - to which Chandrasekher added: "We'll be competitive with our competitors." ®
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