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Skate to where the mobile puck is headed, Intel

Skate to where the mobile puck is headed, Intel
by Don Dingee on 02-24-2014 at 5:00 pm

Mobile World Congress 2014 has already showcased two very different mobile SoC machines in high gear. After watching one big US moment and Canada otherwise dominate everything involving ice and a stick at the Sochi Olympics, I’m reaching into the Wayne Gretzky pile of quotes for a metaphor to examine Intel’s move – and why they are still doomed in phones unless Qualcomm slips and falls.

Intel has reached into their bag of tricks and targeted Qualcomm dominance in two ways: announcing a category 6 LTE modem, and the 64-bit mobile application processor roadmap. In both cases, their problem is clear: they appear to be skating to where the puck is right now, not where it is headed.

 AP photo: Bruce Bennett

The XMM 7260 is Intel’s attempt to get into the LTE chipset game, but long story short: they are already a node behind at debut, on a TSMC 28nm process compared to Qualcomm’s Gobi 9×35 which will be on 20nm at about the same time. You read that correctly: this key piece of Intel strategy is fabbed at TSMC. Intel’s only play here, surprisingly, is price; however, as soon as they wander into stand-alone LTE modem space they will find difficulty against single chip SoCs with LTE integrated.

In the other news is Intel’s worst kept secret: Merrifield, today launched as the Intel Atom Processor Z34. Weighing in with dual 64-bit Silvermont cores (stolen at least in concept from Bay Trail) at up to 2.13 GHz, with an Imagination PowerVR G6400 GPU at 533 MHz, Merrifield gets onto 22nm, enabling Intel to bring its fab power to bear. Close behind, Moorefield – Atom Z35 – ups the ante to 4 Silvermont cores with doubled cache at up to 2.33 GHz, and the PowerVR G6430 GPU. Details are in the excellent AnandTech post on Merrifield.

In a stunning change of behavior, Intel is now directly and publicly comparing themselves to Apple, showing Merrifield benchmarks 16% better than Apple A7 – but 9 months behind in availability. This is interesting because it is pretty clear Intel isn’t going to win over Apple anytime soon, and the best they can hope to do is win some faceoffs with Qualcomm.

Which brings us to the Qualcomm news: the Snapdragon 610 and 615, driving 64-bit into their mid-range offering. The 610 is a quad-core ARM Cortex-A53, an Adreno 405 GPU, and an integrated 9×25 cat 5 LTE modem. The 615 is a curiosity in and of itself: “octa” in name, but really two clusters of quad ARM Cortex-A53 cores. While Qualcomm works on a homegrown 64-bit Krait likely destined for their high end parts, they are dragging some pretty advanced features into the mid-range. A bit more info is in this ArsTechnica post on the announcement.

Intel keeps using the word “competitive” and mobile in the same sentence, but in fact Qualcomm has them surrounded and contained into the mid-range at best. The shoe is now on the other foot: the same strategy Intel used to engulf PowerPC and drive it into PC extinction is now being used against them in mobile. It must be very easy for Qualcomm teams to show their entire roadmap to OEMs and win right now, and I don’t think Intel will be very competitive when the rest of the high-end Qualcomm roadmap comes to light later this year.

Undeterred, Intel keeps skating – there’s a 14nm Broadwell on the vision map, but they have to be very careful not to Osborne themselves by holding back details on how that projects to mobile. Unfortunately, if they keep coming out with essentially one mobile chipset a year (bumps not counted) and very few design wins (and there weren’t any announced today), they are going to find themselves shaking hands at the mobile red line very soon. They have to skate to where the puck is headed, not where it is right now, to have a chance.

lang: en_US

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