Intel's march into the ultra mobile space has been a frustrating one. Architecturally Intel has the chops to play in the market, but its execution has been met with challenges. At first Intel seemed to bet too heavily on non-Android OSes (primarily Windows tablets) and now its challenge seems to be more an issue of getting its designs into the market quickly and ultimately used by OEMs. The Android tablet space in particular is in a race to the bottom, leaving little room for another premium SoC vendor outside of Qualcomm. Intel recently announced a new family of lower cost, entry-level Bay Trail SoCs to help adjust to the changing market, but today it announced an even more aggressive play: a strategic partnership with Rockchip.

Rockchip is one of a handful of fabless semiconductor manufacturers based in China, presently specializing in the development of ARM based mobile SoCs. Under today's announcement however, Intel will be leveraging Rockchip to bring a low cost (entry/value) Intel branded SoC platform for tablets (read: sub-$150 Android tablets with connectivity). 

Intel first started talking to Rockchip about this agreement a "couple quarters" ago. There are two primary motivations behind the agreement: it gives Intel additional resources to bring products to the market, and it allows Intel to scale IA based Android tablets pretty quickly.

By the middle of 2015 Intel and Rockchip will launch a new SoFIA SoC, featuring four Intel Atom cores and an Intel 3G modem. From the text of the announcement, it sounds like Intel will be providing the IP for the SoC while Rockchip will handle the integration of the design itself:

“We are always looking for innovative ways to differentiate our product portfolio, and the first-of-its-kind collaboration with Intel helps us do this,” said Min Li, Rockchip CEO. “The combination of Intel’s leading architecture and modem technology with our leading mobile design capability brings greater choice to the growing global market for mobile devices in the entry and value segments.”

The original SoFIA roadmap had a dual-core part with integrated 3G shipping in late 2014 as well as a quad-core with LTE by the middle of 2015. For the China market, a dual-core value SoC wasn't going to fly so Intel needed to fill the hole in its roadmap with a quad-core 3G solution. A quad-core 3G part would be offered at a lower price point than the quad-core LTE option, leaving a hole in Intel's roadmap in a very price sensitive market. By partnering with Rockchip, Intel leverages some of Rockchip's design teams to bring the part to market without Intel incurring additional burden for what I can only assume will be a fairly low margin SoC. Rockchip was in around 40 million tablets last year, so this gives Intel access to a reasonable TAM as well. 

In return, Rockchip becomes the first company to be able to more or less license Intel x86 CPU IP for use in this combined, Intel-branded SoC. The low-cost ARM based SoC market is crowded and it's tough to differentiate when all of your competitors have access to the same ARM CPU IP. In this case, Rockchip gets access to Silvermont which it may be able to use to set itself apart from the competition. There's obviously a tradeoff in shipping x86 into the Android space, but if Rockchip can help Intel get its numbers up the x86 problem could reduce over time. 

Although the SoC would use the Intel brand there may be some reference to Rockchip, perhaps in the model number.

Intel wouldn't go into specifics on how the arrangement works, other than to say that Intel would work with Rockchip to do the SoC integration and Rockchip will bring its own IP to the table as well. Intel gave the example of Rockchip bringing 3rd party graphics IP to the SoC. Rockchip's existing products use ARM and Vivante GPU cores, so we may end up seeing an SoC that uses Intel x86 cores with Mali graphics.

If I'm reading this correctly it marks a big shift in Intel's approach to the mobile SoC market (and chip making in general). Intel claims the resulting SoC will be very price competitive. Leveraging Rockchip for integration likely means a substantially lower cost structure than traditional Intel SoCs. The design will continue to be fabbed at TSMC. 

Each company will focus on selling the Intel-branded part to its own customers. Intel isn't disclosing how the profit sharing/revenue reporting will work. The agreement doesn't prevent Rockchip from continuing to sell ARM based SoCs and there's no financial investment from Intel in Rockchip. 

Although there's only one product being talked about today (this quad-core Silvermont with integrated 3G), Intel stressed that the deal is strategic - implying that we should see more engagement over time. If this initial quad-core design works well, I can see Intel shifting more of its mobile SoC design integration over to Rockchip. More than anything this is a sign that Intel is willing to try something new/different, and that's absolutely what the company needs.

Source: Intel

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  • darkich - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    You sir, are absolutely right.

    I just hope Intel doesn't kill the market with this unfair subsidiary dumping, preventing the natural evolution passing it by.
    Good thing is, the odds for that happening are pretty low.
  • BPM - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Agreed. What they should have done is launch a new ISA. That's what I've been telling my friends since I got into University. Very good points.
  • factual - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    As I have mentioned in another post, Silvermont (Atom's core) has been superior (in terms of perf/watt) compared to ARM-designed cores since it came out at the end of 2013. Intel has already won the CPU perf/watt game against ARM vendors and I expect it to continue to widen the perf/watt gap.

    Intel's problems are related to the soc not the cpu. Intel's socs have inferior GPUs, inferior image signal processors, they don't have integrated connectivity and cellular and a lot of other issues.

    All this talk about x86 vs ARM is irrelevant. Intel's CPUs are superior to ARM's, and they superiority will only grow over time, but that doesn't mean Intel will succeed in mobile, because in mobile, it's the soc product that matters, and Qualcomm is king when it comes to designing well-integrated, well-rounded, cost-effective Socs for now.

    Nvidia has the best mobile GPU, Intel has the best mobile CPU but it's Qualcomm that dominates the mobile market because they have the best mobile SOC.
  • darkich - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Technically, Apple has the best mobile CPU.
    And I am willing to bet that Qualcomm will have the best one, in years to come.

    Atom simply has way too much x86 baggage to compete in non x86 environment..only thing keeping it afloat is the more advanced manufacturing process.
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Exactly, and that manufacturing advantage is being lost for the Sofia line of SoCs. I agree it's big like Anand says, in the sense of becoming a big flop.
  • darkich - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Funny thing is, soFIA looked as a flop even a year ago.
  • darkich - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Correction, yes.. half a year ago
  • factual - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Apple's mobile chip performance is irrelevant to Intel, Qualcomm, Nvidia and the rest of the merchant chip vendors. None of them can win the Apple's mobile socket and none of them will be directly competing against apple in the android space.

    I disagree with your claim that x86 ISA is somehow inferior to ARM ISA. ISA has minimal effect on the CPU performance anyways. What determines the performance of a CPU is micro-architecture and manufacturing technology.
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Agreed on the first paragraph. As to ISA, yes ISA still matters. Not just in terms of design time (compare how many cores ARM designs each year vs Intel), but the additional complexity of x86 does require a lot more transistors, increasing power consumption and die area. I'd argue that an ISA has quite a big penalty if a 2-way in-oder core is 3.5 times larger than a 3-way OoO core:
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Actually Silvermont's perf/Watt is far worse than eg. Cortex-A7. It's slower than Cortex-A15, Apple A7 and high-end Krait. Its die area is several times larger than a typical ARM core despite being using a better process.

    The hard fact is that Silvermont is by no means the best core in any market it tries to compete. So it is no surprise there are no Silvermont phones yet, despite being on the market for quite a while. 28nm Silvermont will be interesting to see as it will be even harder to compete against far smaller and more efficient ARM cores.

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