This week it was Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Everyone who is anyone in mobile is there. Unfortunately I’m not since Barcelona is one of my favorite cities to visit. Two companies that set high expectations before the show were Samsung and Intel.
Samsung announced the new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones on Sunday. Since there had already been so many leaks there were not a lot of surprises. Yes, it has a metal back, a (very) high resolution screen, fingerprint sensor, 32/64/128GB internal storage, 16Mpx camera, support for Samsung Pay using NFC or MFT, wireless charging. And like the iPhone, no expansion microSD slot, no removable battery, not waterproof. In fact, it is like the iPhone in so many ways, clearly designed to compete with it head-on at the high-end and also outspec Xiomi’s phones who are the big competition in China. It will be available April 10th.
From a chip point of view, the application processor is the Octacore Exynos. That is a big.LITTLE ARM processor with 4 Cortex-A57 and 4 Cortex-A53 cores, running at 2.1GHz and 1.5GHz respectively. Previous high end Galaxy phones, at least in most markets, used Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. It presumably also has the Exynos LTE modem although I’m not sure whether it is all integrated on one chip with the AP or not.
Anyway, the phone has been getting great reviews, although some people are complaining about some of the steps they consider backward (no removable battery for example). It is microscopically thinner than the iPhone 6 and has higher resolution display, giving them some bragging rights at least.
The other widely anticipated announcement was Intel. Brian Krzanich gave one of the keynotes and also Intel had a press conference on Monday. Before the show something big was anticipated since, well, Brian is Intel’s CEO and so just by being there is indicating something about Intel’s commitment to mobile. With the PC market growing at best slowly, and mobile continuing to be the way of the future, Intel needs to be in this market.
Apple, as I’m sure you know, builds its own application processors (currently A8 with A9 expected soon). As mentioned above, Samsung builds their own application processors (Exynos). Qualcomm and Mediatek have almost all of the market for merchant application processors for other mobile handset manufacturers. The high end, where you would expect Intel to be competing based on its history and its historic high silicon margins, is thus proprietary leaving Intel to fight it out on the very competitive lower end.
So what did Intel announce? They renamed SoFIA to x3 for low cost smartphones and tablets. They say they have 20 customers committed to deliver designs. Remember, this is the follow-on design from the one that they have been shipping negative revenue with, basically paying customers as much as $40 to use the part. For higher-end tablets they renamed Cherry Trail to x5 and x7. They introduced a new LTE modem, the XMM 7360 with download speeds up to 450Mbps. The timetables of some of these chips seem to be a little accelerated from previous announcements, but the details remain a bit sketchy. They announced that customers include Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba, who have already committed to deliver devices on this platform.
The Intel press release is cleverly worded so if you don’t look closely it seems the level of integration is greater than it is:Combining 64-bit multi-core Intel Atom processors together with 3G or 4G LTE connectivity, the integrated communications SoC combines the applications processor, image sensor processor, graphics, audio, connectivity and power management components in a single system chipset.
This is what they said during their investor meeting back in November:
They seemed to have pulled the schedules in somewhat. I am no longer sure which of these chips are built by TSMC and which in Intel’s own fabs. The SoFIA MID on the above table is explicitly “Intel fab” so I think the rest are probably chipsets combining an 64-bit Atom-based processor built in Intel fabs with an LTE modem built in TSMC 28nm until late next year when they will finally have a combined AP+modem on an Intel process (the SoFIA MID was explicitly called out as Intel Manufacturing in the November table). Anyway, at MWC Intel now say that Cherry Trail aka x3/x5 will be out in 1H (presumably something like June) whereas it was second half before.
But it all comes over as too little too late. If Intel doesn’t have any flagship design wins I don’t see how they can compete against Qualcomm and Mediatek. Intel is a “manufacturing powerhouse” but that usually means they have great technology for the high-end microprocessor business. Whether that is the technology of choice for the low-end mobile business I’m dubious about.
You can see a video of Intel’s press conference at MWC 2015 (about 30 minutes) here.
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