Intel Demonstrates dual-core Atom SoC with Integrated WiFi Transceiverby Anand Lal Shimpi on February 20, 2012 12:58 PM EST
This week is the annual International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) where chip companies from all walks of life present papers documenting everything from shipping architectures to future research projects. Intel has always had a large presence at the conference and this year is no different. I'm still trying to get my hands on some of the actual papers being presented but Intel invited some press to a pre-brief on the high level announcements from the conference.
One such announcement is a test SoC called Rosepoint. It's a 32nm dual-core Atom SoC with an integrated WiFi transceiver. Despite the high levels of integration we see in smartphone SoCs, WiFi is typically serviced by an external combo chip that integrates WiFi and Bluetooth among other radio technologies. Rosepoint brings the WiFi functionality on-die. The name of the game in the mobile SoC space is integration, making Rosepoint a research project with significant real world implications.
Integration is nothing new of course. AMD, Intel, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, TI and all of the others playing in the SoC space have been slowly integrating more functionality on-die over the past decade. Intel claims the difficulty in bringing WiFi on-die is mitigating interference between the RF transceiver and the rest of the SoC. The details of Rosepoint's architecture and how Intel was able to reliably integrate the two are likely described in the ISSCC paper. If I can get my hands on it I'll see about updating this post.
Rosepoint is important because of Intel's dillema as it enters the smartphone SoC space. Most high-end smartphone SoCs sell in the $14 - $25 range, a significant reduction compared to the $50 - $1000 Intel is used to getting for CPUs. Even if you look at smartphone-sized x86 CPUs, Intel can typically get somewhere between $50 - $100 for the CPU. Then add another $20 - $30 for the chipset and margins start looking very nice. Intel can't guarantee > 60% margins selling ~$20 smartphone SoCs. At the same time, Intel based smartphones wouldn't sell very well if they were significantly more expensive than the competition. This puts Intel in a difficult position: settle for lower margins (and upset wallstreet) or figure out a way to offer more value by integrating other parts of the bill of materials.
Offering and integrating radios where possible is clearly one step, although we'll likely see integrated cellular baseband before we see on-die WiFi. Intel's recent restructuring left the new mobile & comms group with a mandate to deliver an ultra low-power WiFi solution that could work in a smartphone. The first Intel based WiFi in smartphones will begin as a discrete chip but it's clear that integration is on Intel's mind. The other options for Intel to bring some of that precious BOM in house is to offer reference platforms and/or use software as a differentiator.
In the early days Intel would just sell a CPU and rely on third parties for the rest of the chips on the motherboard. Then came Centrino and the new platform-centric Intel. Expect to see a similar effort in smartphones.