December 2012 was the first time we encountered an Android-based phone with Intel’s hardware inside. The model in question was ZTE’s Grand X In, but that isn’t the only smartphone on offer based on an x86 chip. Depending on the region, a few other partners of Intel’s presented their own models, such as Motorola’s RAZR I for Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico and the UK, as well as MT788 for sale in China. Under its own brande, the French mobile operator launched Orange San Diego in the UK and France, while Russia’s MegaFon has Mint. Lenovo’s K800, already familiar to our readers, was launched to the Chinese market, the less-known Lava sells their Xolo phone in India, while ZTE have decided to use an x86 CPU in their Grand X In for certain markets in Europe, such as Austria and Serbia.
Although Intel’s efforts to ensure their position as a mobile CPU manufacturer are intensive, ARM has always had a significant advantage. The large number of competing solutions based on similar (ARM) architecture has led to a very accessible price and a high degree of compatibility for software developed on this platform. Furthermore, unlike Intel’s “performance comes first” strategy, ARM was designed from the ground-up as a power-conscious technology, which is of utmost importance for devices that are powered 95% of the time by the built-in battery. Add to this the fact that the latest hardware generations provide an exceptional user experience and high performance with their optimised operating systems, and it looked as if Intel and their several-years-old Atom platform had no place in the dynamic mobile market environment.
All this contributed greatly to our surprise when we tested ZTE’s Grand X In and got splendid results. Autonomy turned out to be great, even better than in its twin model Grand X, based on NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 platform. There were a few apps that just refused to start, even though they could be installed from Google’s Play Store, but their number is very low. Frankly, we’ve seen similar troubles on ARM-based phones as well. Performance in everyday conditions was excellent, better than the twin brother’s, although the doubled amount of RAM at disposal is probably partly to blame as well. However, as most synthetic benchmarks have shown, the raw power of Atom Z2460 is notable and positions this phone much higher on the ladder than its price suggests.
In our concrete case, the only thing to reproach is the choice of PowerVR SGX545 as the graphics card, which is rather old in IT terms. True enough, you won’t need anything more powerful for 2D and the user interface, and even a few 3D games will work properly. However, performance in this segment isn’t up to par even with Tegra 2, a platform presented in January 2011 and a much better solution, so it’s safe to kiss heavy-duty games goodbye. For instance, Temple Run didn’t work nearly as well as expected on Grand X In, but Angry Birds was as smooth as ever, in all its versions. Interestingly enough, this is the same tactics applied by Intel in their PCs, offering just enough graphics performance for most users, with the exception of casual and hardcore gamers. With this in mind, it’s exactly the principle of using a weaker graphics card that ensures power savings and better battery autonomy compared to competitors with more powerful 3D graphics accelerators. It shouldn’t come across as surprising, then, that the identical graphics card was used in more powerful version of the CPU itself, which may cause it to become a bottleneck with higher display resolutions.
Unlike Tegra 2, which experienced issues with video playback and UI acceleration on many devices with the shift to Android 4.0, Intel’s platform encountered no such issues. All supported video formats continue to be successfully and swiftly reproduced. Truth be told, Intel-based solutions still ship with Android 4.0.x version, which is rapidly aging against frequent updates by Google. While visual and functional differences between 4.0.x and newer versions aren’t that obvious, we believe that it could well be one of the key dangers to Intel – the need for constant software and driver support for new OS version. Unlike the PC world, in which new OS versions appear every few years, the mobile segment rarely sees a year without a major OS update, which causes a psychological, if somewhat unrealistic, gap between platforms.
The current situation is such that Intel matches competing hardware solutions on the market very nicely. Depending on which sort of product you’re developing, you’re free to use a weaker Atom Z2460, or perhaps the somewhat stronger Atom Z2760, both of which are sufficiently powerful for the low- and mid-range. It’s very good that Intel has managed to keep power consumption low, so that devices based on their CPUs keep the appropriate autonomy on a single battery charge. However, Intel is far from being done in this field. ARM competitors have already launched platforms with much better performance and similar autonomy, and the CES fair held a few weeks ago has seen fantastic systems in development, such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 and 600, as well as NVIDIA’s Tegra 4, while Samsung presented their latest-gen technology a bit earlier in the form of Exynos CPUs, namely 5440 and 5450. All these systems promise a drastic improvement in performance, up to 90% compared to existing, already very fast solutions, while keeping low consumption. Intel may have a problem in this regard, because the first devices based on these new systems will be appearing across the next few months, whereas Intel won’t be seriously revising their product gamma until the end of this year and the coming of the Bay Trail architecture and related solutions.
If you’re interested in just how good a job Intel’s engineers have done, suffice to say that the current architecture, codenamed Medfield, which all Atom CPUs are based on, is five years old, and its production process three. Just switching to a more refined production process is bound to reduce consumption and increase clocks by itself, and the step is bound to be large, as the switch will happen from the current 32 nm to 22 nm directly. It remains to be seen just how advanced the new architecture will be compared to the current one, but knowing Intel, we can say with a degree of certainty that it’s going to be a major hike. Intel is very reassuring about this fact, to the point that one of their CPU engineers unofficially stated that the first quarter of 2014 will see Intel with a manifold-increased presence on the mobile market, whereas 2015 will be the year it takes the lead from ARM.
Whether this prognosis will come true or not doesn’t depend solely on Intel, however, since we’re certain that ARM designers won’t be sitting on their laurels in the meantime. With the mentioned Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Samsung products en route, there’s also the insurmountable Apple (which seems to be transferring their chip manufacturing to TSMC), as well as the plethora of less famed solutions, such as those from Huawei labs. AMD is bound to join the race sooner or later, having in mind all of their statements made last year about the desire to expand into this segment and make Android apps compatible with Windows. Further information is pending, and interestingly enough, VIZIO took the opportunity to present their AMD-based Windows 8 tablet at this year’s CES. Either way, this is good news for us all, since higher competitiveness both expands product gammas across all manufacturers and makes for a more aggressive pricing policy. If predictions are anything to go by, 2013 is going to be a very interesting year for the mobile market, with most of us including a new phone or tablet under the Christmas tree next December. Who knows, it may even be based on a brand new CPU.