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Surprise! Intel smartphone trounces ARM in power trials

Tests show equal performance while sipping significantly less juice

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The industry analysts at ABI Research pitted a Lenovo smartphone based on Intel's Atom-based Clover Trail+ platform against a quartet of ARM-based systems, and Chipzilla's system not only kept pace with the best of them, but did so using less power.

"The benchmarks were impressive but the real surprise was the current consumption recorded during the benchmarks;" ABI Research engineer VP Jim Mielke said when announcing the results, "the new processor not only outperformed the competition in performance but it did so with up to half the current drain."

The Clover Trail+ phone in question was a Lenovo K900 powered by Intel's 32-nanometer 2.0GHz Atom Z2580 with two dual-thread Saltwell CPU cores in the Clover Trail+ platform along with two Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 544 GPU cores.

The ARM-based competition included – and first take a deep breath, as we're entering a dense thicket of specs – a Samsung Nexus 10 powered by a dual-core 1.7GHz Cortex-A15 and a Mali-T604 GPU; a Samsung i9500 Galaxy S 4 with a "big.LITTLE" Exynos Octa with a quad-core 1.6GHz Cortex-A15 and quad-core 1.2GHz Cortex-A7 coupled with a PowerVR SGX 544MP3 GPU; a Samsung i337 Galaxy S 4 with a 1.9GHz Qualcomm APQ8064T Snapdragon 600 with four Krait 300 cores and an Adreno 320 GPU; and an Asus Nexus 7 with an Nvidia Tegra 3 with four 1.2GHz Cortex-A9 cores and a ULP GeForce GPU.

ABI Research provided no details on the content and construction of their benchmarks, but the comparative results show the Z2850-equipped Lenovo K900 to be more than merely competitive with the ARM-based phones.

ABI Research smartphone benchmarks

Don't squint – click to enlarge

Of the five phones tested, the dual-core Lenovo K900 and quad-core Samsung i9500 and i337 Galaxy S 4s all scored in the 5000 range in ABI's CPU-scoring system, with the dual-A15 Samsung Nexus 10 and quad-A9 Asus Nexus 7 falling substantially behind.

What was of most interest, however, was that the Lenovo K900 hit its numbers using significantly less juice than did its two 5000-scoring Galaxy S 4 competitors. "Of the three," ABI writes, "Intel stood out with only 0.85A of average current vs. 1.38A for the Samsung Exynos Octa, and 1.79A for the Qualcomm APQ8064T."

Mielke praised Intel and offered his opinion as to why the ARM chips sucked more power. "Intel did significant work to bring the current drain down on their well-recognized high-performance processors, but the competitors did not help themselves," he said. "The ARM architecture used by nearly all of Intel's competitors is well known for its low-power performance but in bringing the processing power up closer to PC levels, the current drain has taken a significant hit."

Earlier this month, The Reg had a conversation with Intel spokesman Bill Calder, who expressed high confidence in his company's ability to enter the smartphone market. "The myth that Intel will never be able to get power down low enough to get into phones is gone," he said. "That debate is over."

If ABI Research's benchmark testing is to be trusted, Calder appears to be correct.

Mielke suggested another reason as to why he believes Intel – after years of disappointing products such as Menlow, Moorestown, and Medfield – can become a true competitor in the smartphone market. "Combining the high-end modems (the XMM6360 is used in both the Lenovo K900 and the Samsung Galaxy S4 i9500) with their application processors for high- to mid-tier solutions and single-chip EDGE chips for low-cost phones makes Intel a rare full portfolio provider," he said.

One last note: remember, the Clover Trail+ platform is based on a 32nm Saltwell compute core. When 22nm parts based on Intel's upcoming – and more advanced – Silvermont Atom microarchitecture are slipped into the Merrifield smartphone platform later this year, Chipzilla's hand should be strengthened.

Not that the ARM camp will stand still, of course – there's plenty of innovation still to come from Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, and others. We're sure to see some serious competition – which means that we, the consumers, will be the ultimate victors. ®

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