Intel yesterday announced the availability of its next wave of Atom-branded System-on-a-Chip (SoC) products for smartphones and tablets. It also offered a peek at a next-gen quad-core Atom SoC, codenamed Bay Trail, due out before the end of the year.
But perhaps the most intriguing new product the chip giant is showcasing this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is a new low-power, multimode-multiband 4G LTE global modem, the Intel XMM 7160, which the company is positioning not just as a laptop solution, but also for smartphones and tablets.
The XMM 7160 supports the LTE, DC-HSPA+, and EDGE standards and if it's picked up by mobile device makers as Intel is clearly hoping it will be, it would be a coup for the company in its growing rivalry with Qualcomm, MediaTek, and other makers of multi-chip platforms for smartphones and tablets.
"The 7160 is a highly competitive 4G LTE solution that we expect will meet the growing needs of the emerging global 4G market. Independent analysts have shown our solution to be world class and I'm confident that our offerings will lead Intel into new multi-comm solutions," Hermann Eul, vice president and co-general manager of Intel's Mobile and Communications Group, said in a statement.
"With LTE connections projected to double over the next 12 months to more than 120 million connections, we believe our solution will give developers and service providers a single competitive offering while delivering to consumers the best global 4G experience," he continued. "Building on this, Intel will also accelerate the delivery of new advanced features to be timed with future advanced 4G network deployments."
A broader product portfolio for mobile devices is undoubtedly a good thing for Intel, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group. The reality is, the company has so far struggled to penetrate the mobile device market with even its specialty, x86-based central processors, as device makers continue to lean on ARM-based parts like Qualcomm's Snapdragon.
That's because "all the performance in the world doesn't mean anything without the radio," Enderle said. Qualcomm's ability to pair Snapdragon application processors with market-leading Wi-Fi and mobile ultra-broadband solutions has given that company a big edge, the analyst added.
"It's really not a performance game against Qualcomm. It's the radio. Intel's got to be able to compete with the modem and clearly they're closing the gap with this one," Enderle said of the XMM 7160.
As Intel did with its acquisition of Infineon, "Nvidia had to buy a modem company too," the analyst noted, adding, "But this play is more important for Intel, because it's their PCs that are being cannibalized by all the smartphones and tablets out there."
Of course, Intel isn't sitting pat with its Atom SoCs, either.
For starters, the chip giant is banking on its newly released Atom Z25xx platform, formerly code named Clover Trail+, to usher in a wave of x86-based smartphones and tablets. The company said that Clover Trail+ provides "double the compute performance and three times the graphics capabilities" of its first-generation Medfield-class chipsets.
Intel said Asus, Lenovo, and others would be building Android-based smartphones and tablets powered by Clover Trail+ chips. The new line-up of 32nm dual-core SoCs includes the 1.2GHz Atom Z2520, 1.6GHz Atom Z2560, and 2GHz Atom Z2580.
The Atom Z25xx platform features Intel's Hyper-Threading technology and the latest graphics solution from the company, which can hit 533MHz with boost mode kicking in and deliver 1080p HD video with 30fps encoding and decoding.
Later this year, Intel said it will deliver a new Atom platform called Bay Trail, which will gain performance and power-saving advantages via a transition to the company's 22nm fabrication process. Those quad-core SoCs will be ready in time for the holiday season this year, Eul said.
"Our second-generation [Clover Trail+] product delivers double the compute performance and up to three times the graphics capabilities, all while maintaining competitive low power," the Intel executive said. "As we transition to 22nm Atom SoCs later this year, we will take full advantage of the broad spectrum of capabilities enabled by our design, architecture, 22nm Tri-Gate transistor technology, and leading-edge manufacturing to further accelerate our position."
When Intel takes Atom to 22nm and is able to get a CPU, GPU, and modem all onto a single SoC, the company's ability to compete with makers of ARM-based mobile device platforms could really kick into gear, said Jack Gold, principle analyst for J. Gold Associates.
"Intel is finally pushing out some silicon that is competitive, although the next-gen Atoms at 22nm with new microarchitecture will be even more so, especially with true multi-threading that essentially emulates having more cores," Gold said.
"Intel has been a little slow in getting LTE from Infineon to the market. I'd expect to see this announcement of new Atom devices and an LTE chip lead directly to an integrated SoC by end of 2013 or early next year. Coupled with the new microarchitecture, a 22nm product should put Intel in a pretty competitive position against rivals in the ARM camp ... although obviously the ARM camp isn't sitting still either."