At CES 2012, Intel has officially launched Medfield — the Atom Z2460 — a smartphone SoC that’s going into products that will actually ship. That last is particularly important — unlike past launches, Intel has held Medfield back until its partners were ready to go to press as well. Motorola has announced a multi-stage deal involving both phones and tablets, with phones coming first and expected by this summer, while Lenovo demoed its K800 smartphone (intended for the Chinese market) from stage this afternoon.
Even so, today’s news is likely to be greeted by some skepticism; Intel, after all, has sung this song before. Moorestown launched two years ago with an LG GW990 phone on display, demonstrations of Intel’s then-new OS, Moblin, and plenty of chest beating over the chip’s capabilities. It promptly sank. The next two years poured on the insults — Nokia abandoned the MeeGo project, Anand Chandrasekher resigned from his position as general manager of Intel’s mobile division, and the company reorganized its entire mobile structure just last month.
When Intel invited us to a private briefing several weeks ago, we were initially dubious as to whether Medfield was the chip that would begin to turn the company’s mobile fortunes around. Based on what we’ve seen, we think it will. Our meeting with Intel was long on engineers and short on marketing; top mobile engineer Mike Bell was on hand to field questions and discuss Intel’s uphill struggle in this market.
Forget Moorestown. Forget the pundits who’ve claimed that Intel was incapable of developing a truly low-power processor. Medfield hits “reset” on what’s come before.
Why it’s different this time around
First, there’s the matter of the chip itself. When Intel started showing off Moorestown prototypes, it initially opted for a form-factor only the X-Men’s Cyclops would have wanted. The company’s launch vehicles were a pair of unreleased devices from LG and Aava (who?). No major carriers or other top manufacturers had committed to build phones.
Today, Medfield is launching with support on both fronts. Lenovo and Motorola have announced products, and we expect to hear more news from other companies at Mobile World Congress next month. The chip is much smaller; the smartphones we spent time with last month are the same size, shape, and weight as the ARM-powered products they’ll compete against. Intel’s goal, in fact, isn’t to blow everything else out of the water, but to field a competitive design that can slug it out with existing smartphones from HTC, Samsung, and Motorola.
The fact that manufacturers are willing to commit up front makes an enormous difference, but it’s not the only one. This time around, Intel isn’t stuck trying to push an entire OS simultaneously. Bybacking and contributing to Android, Intel has reaped the benefit of Google’s operating system without having to persuade handset manufacturers and carriers to create x86-specific software from the ground up.
Quick — pick out the Medfield phone
Another major change from Moorestown to Medfield is the number of additional chips required to power the device. Moorestown was technically a two-chip solution (Lincroft + Langwell), but it relied on a third chip — Brierstown — for power management. Manufacturers also had to add a Power Management IC (PMIC), a WiFi/3G radio, and external DRAM, bringing the minimum number of discrete chips to five.
Medfield integrates the functions originally contained within Langwell and incorporates DRAM via Intel’s first use of package-on-package bonding. This brings the total necessary chips down to three — Medfield, its radio, and PMIC.
Of course none of this matters if the Atom-based processor isn’t competitive with current and future ARM-based hardware.
Let’s get codenames out of the way first. The CPU core is Saltwell, the SoC package is Penwell, the SoC + radio, camera, and other goodies — the platform — is Medfield. Intel’s official slide detailing the SoC’s configuration isn’t very detailed, but we’ve got permission to share additional facts.
Medfield pairs a 1.6GHz Atom CPU with an SGX540 GPU designed by PowerVR. This is the same GPU we’ve seen tip up in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Droid Razr, though Intel is clocking it higher, at 400MHz. Intel’s new SoC encodes video at 720p at 30 fps, can playback 1080p at 30 fps, and supports 1920×1080 output via HDMI.
The memory interface is a dual-channel, 32-bit design with support for up to LPDDR2-800. The x86 SoC matches up well against the current crop of hardware from Nvidia, Samsung, TI, and Qualcomm, with one significant exception: All of the ARM parts are dual-core, while Medfield makes do with a single-core Atom + Hyper-Threading.
This fact raises a brace of questions. First, is this configuration powerful enough to match currently shipping solutions? Second, can it do so without blowing its power budget?
It looks as if it can. CPU benchmarks between ARM and Atom are hard to come by, but the data that exists suggests that Atom is at least somewhat more powerful than the Cortex-A9 found in all most current ARM chips. The Saltwell core can run as fast as 1.6GHz, a full third faster than even the high-end 1.2GHz ARM chips currently shipping.
As for Hyper-Threading, while it’s not the same as having a dual-core CPU, it offers a substantial improvement. By scheduling different threads for simultaneous execution, Medfield offers a notable performance improvement without incurring the additional power expenditure of a full second core.
Finally, there’s the CPU’s significantly improved power gating. Penwell is capable of adjusting its clock speeds in 100MHz increments, while the Saltwell core was rearchitected for lower operating voltages (as was the L2). Medfield is capable of entering and exiting low power and sleep states much more quickly than Moorestown; Medfield’s worst-case exit latency for C6/S0i1 is 70 microseconds, compared to 200 microseconds for its predecessor.
Performance and capabilities
Results based on the observed performance of all three devices.
All three phones were running Gingerbread 2.3.
Additional performance details are shown below. We’ve seen an updated version of this slide; readers should note that the “Graphics” results are no longer accurate. The refreshed GPUs in phones like the Galaxy Nexus, S2, and iPhone 4S have substantially raised the bar. Medfield’s performance remains competitive in this area.
Intel also showed off a phone running Ice Cream Sandwich, and gave its word that while all phones would be faster in the new OS, the relative performance rankings wouldn’t significantly change. Chipzilla has put significant effort into porting Android to x86 and working with top developers to ensure that plenty of x86-compatible apps will be available at launch, but maintains that it’s made no underlying changes to any part of the Android codebase that unfairly favor its architecture or that could penalize any ARM product.
The company’s goal is to have 90% of current Android apps ready and waiting for x86 smartphone owners when Medfield hits the streets.
Other functions Intel illustrated were Medfield’s ability to decode 1080p50 video at a 20Mbps bitrate. Neither the HTC Sensation nor Motorola Droid Bionic could handle the load regardless of whether an external display was connected or not. Intel’s reference phone had no such problems.
A first step
At this point we’ve had no private, hands-on time with Medfield, and therefore no opportunity to verify that the claims Intel made regarding the SoC’s battery life and overall performance hold up under scrutiny. While we reserve final judgment on Medfield’s prospects until we’ve had a chance to do so, we suspect Intel’s 32nm SoC will do well against its peers when real-world devices start shipping.
Critics will correctly note that even if the Z2460′s performance advantage in tests like SunSpider holds up under examination, the chip will be severely tested by upcoming 28nm designs from the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung. This is true — but over-emphasizing it misses the larger point. As one Intel executive told us, the company’s goal with Medfield is to earn “a seat at the table.”
With one major manufacturer announcing today, we’d say Medfield is already more successful than Moorestown ever was. Even if uptake is relatively limited, Intel is already hard at work at future versions of the architecture with a major refresh planned for next year on a 22nm process. By that time, it’ll be Intel with a manufacturing advantage at 22nm and the voltage/power consumption improvements it brings.