What's Different This Time Around: Google & A Sweet Reference Platform

Intel has been talking about getting into smartphones for a couple of years now, but thus far it hasn't been able to secure a single design or partnership that that resulted in a product actually coming to market. This time around, things are different. The major change? Focus, and Google.

Intel originally had ambitions of enabling its own mobile OS with the help of Nokia (Moblin/MeeGo). Intel also wanted to support Android as well, however its attention was clearly more focused on the Moblin/MeeGo effort. Similar to the wake up call that pushed NVIDIA to focus exclusively on Android, Intel has now done the same.

At IDF last year Intel and Google announced a partnership and the intention to bring all future versions of Android, starting with Gingerbread, to x86. Since then Intel has ramped up the software engineering engine, going into the Android source code (Gingerbread, Honeycomb and now ICS) and fixing bugs. Intel's goal is to deliver the most stable version of Android as a result of its efforts. Intel is also submitting its changes upstream to the AOSP, which should help improve the Android experience even on ARM platforms.

 

 

Under the leadership of Mike Bell (formerly of Apple and Palm), Intel has also created an extremely polished Medfield reference design. This is the same design shown off at IDF last year (apparently there's an even thinner one floating around somewhere), but what separates it from other reference designs we've seen from SoC vendors is that the Medfield reference platform was designed to be a polished phone that could theoretically be rebranded and resold.

Intel knew the onus was on itself to prove that Medfield, Atom and even just x86 was power efficient enough to be delivered in a compelling form factor with competitive battery life. Paul Otellini gave Mike carte blanche access to any of Intel's resources. Instead of having to work with existing Intel groups, Mike was allowed to assemble his dream team of engineers. The team Mike built is what he felt he needed to not only bring Medfield to market, but also to build the a first class Atom based smartphone.

The result is this:

 

Internally it features Intel's own XMM 6260 HSPA+ modem. Intel claims LTE is on the way although there's no ETA on that.

WiFi in the reference design is provided by TI's 1283 controller. Intel's wireless team does not have a a WiFi solution that's low power enough to work in a smartphone, although after the recent restructuring the team has now been tasked with building an ultra low power solution that can.

 

The display is a somewhat unusual 1024 x 600 panel, with support for 1080p30 (and 1080i60) output via HDMI. The SoC specs are identical to what I've already discussed: 1.6GHz max CPU clock and a 400MHz GPU clock.

The reference platform is not only smartphone sized, but Intel has built its own qualification labs that mirror those of the carriers to ensure quality and convince its customers of the platform's legitimacy. In essence, Intel has built its own miniature smartphone design and test center.

The Medfield reference platform is available for use by any of Intel's customers, and indeed that's what's already happening. Lenovo's K800 is based on a modified version of Intel's reference platform, and I wouldn't be surprised if more aren't on the way.

All of this sounds a lot like Intel's efforts in the motherboard space over a decade ago where it started providing motherboard manufacturers with reference designs that they could modify if they desired. The effort helped significantly reduce time to market and allowed the motherboard makers to focus more on specializing on what they were good at.

The Medfield reference platform is designed to do the very same for smartphones. Intel wants to provide its partners with a well designed, stable smartphone platform. If they choose to use it, they can shave off a significant amount of development time and spend more of their time on software or simply bring a good reference phone to market in a quick fashion. I'm not entirely sure I've seen many players in the Android space that are actually all that great at software development, but Intel believes anything that shortens time to market will be appreciated.

I asked Intel if it has any plans to offer the reference platform unlocked, direct to customers. Unfortunately the answer at this point is still no. I suspect that Intel is more interested in building its customer base rather than circumventing it.

 

The GPU, Process & Roadmap ARM Compatibility: Binary Translation
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  • MySchizoBuddy - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    This would be very interesting if it is launched TODAY not end of year. Reply
  • tipoo - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Yeah, that's why I'm wondering how it will perform against chips its actually going to compete with, namely Cortex A15 designs. The gap here is pretty big, but not insurmountable I think, and the A15 looks promising as well. Reply
  • tipoo - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Colour me impressed! This looks like it will be a rather disruptive SoC, especially with ARM Binary Translation. The nice thing is its a single core so developers don't have to optimize for two or four cores to get maximum performance. Although, I wonder if something like the quad core Tegra 3 would be able to best its performance if everything was more optimized for multicore? And more importantly, how will it fare against Cortex A15 designs. But, yeah, I'm excited for this, even more so for the variant with the 543MP2. Reply
  • Morg. - Thursday, January 12, 2012 - link

    ARM binary translation will be slow ... like real slow.

    It's like a VM but on a different arch.

    The tegra3 is just slightly slower .. on 40nm

    Against A9 on the same process, ARM wins, against A15 ARM butchers.. nothing really different in the end - just that Intel can only count on process advantage to keep more or less in the race (so far).
    Reply
  • milli - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Jason, yes I'm talking to you Jason Mick: oh how much you look like a fool now. Many people (including me) tried to warn you about your wrong article. Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Wrong site, foo. Reply
  • Iketh - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    I was thinking about that the entire time I was reading this. Reply
  • bji - Thursday, January 12, 2012 - link

    What are you guys talking about? Reply
  • mikeepu - Thursday, January 12, 2012 - link

    At first i thought the same thing as DigitalFreak, but i thought about it and went back to Jason Mick's article last month http://tinyurl.com/JasonMicksMedfieldArticle and found your comment. Yes. Yes, you did. Reply
  • hechacker1 - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    What's impressive to me is the fact that you have an Atom, which powers generations of netbooks, running as a SoC using only milliwatts of power most of the time.

    I'd love to see a tablet/netbook version with a huge battery that could run for the better part of a day.

    It would even do really well as a media server/HTPC if only it had I/O bandwidth for hard disks and HDMI outputs with surround sound.
    Reply

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