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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  • Wilco1 - Sunday, June 1, 2014 - link

    You're just clutching straws by trying to claim Phoronix is the "gold" standard. Show me a single site that uses Phoronix benchmarks in their reviews of ARM SoCs. I can point out many sites that use GeekBench.

    Bringing up AnTuTu really helps your case, it's well known that Intel cheated those. All that is even more proof that you don't have any evidence on your side and have to resort to cheating to make your point.

    Clockspeed certainly matters, especially when different SoCs run at different frequencies. To get a fair comparison you have to consider the frequency. Given that a 1.9GHz A15 already matches or beats a 2.4GHz Silvermont on Geekbench and 7-ZIP, we can safely conclude that a 2.3GHz A15 will outperform it by a huge margin. Also consider the fact that not all Silvermonts will be clocked at 2.4GHz, there are many slower parts as well (those are the ones typically used for phones and tablets).

    It's undeniable that you're just a fanboi with no technical knowledge at all. Do you even understand why A15 has a superior microarchitecture?
  • factual - Sunday, June 1, 2014 - link

    ARM cores are inferior for enterprise use, that's why you don't often see Phoronix used for ARM. Phoronix and Spec are used to for enterprise Linux benchmarking, and ARM is virtually non-existent in the enterprise space.

    CPU Clock frequency, when comparing different micro-architectures, does not matter. cpus can increase performance in several ways, including increasing clock speed or increasing issue width (instructions computed per cycle). Depending on the microarchitecture and process technology, a cpu can consume less power than another cpu design while running at similar or higher clock frequency. So what needs to be measured when comparing different microarchitectures is not clock frequency but performance per watt. If a CPU can achieve same power consumption at higher clock frequencies compared to other CPUs, that's a design advantage. All that said, all the comprehensive benchmarks showed so far that Silvermont performs superior to Cortex A15 while running at lower clock speeds than A15, not the other way around!

    However, no matter how many times technical reasoning and benchmarks show Silvermont to be wildly superior to Cortex A15, a fanboi in denial will remain in denial! As I said before, educating someone who insist on remaining ignorant is impossible. But just for the record all the comprehensive benchmark (even your favorite, Geekbench) show Silvermont to handily beat Cortex A15 when it comes to performance/watt:
  • darkich - Friday, May 30, 2014 - link

    Tegra K1 is much better than you think.
  • name99 - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    I don't believe we have any information proving that Silvermont is superior to Cyclone in operations/watt.
    What we have is scattered information that doesn't really tell us what we need. Consider (Because I have the numbers easily available) the MacBook Air (Haswell) vs iPad air (Cyclone).
    For Geekbench type benchmarks (and a range of other things, like sunspider) the MBA is about 2.5x the iPad. That's one piece of info. The iPad has a 32Whr battery, MBA has 38Whr, iPad gets about 10hrs of battery life on some sort of "real world tasks" benchmark, MBA gets about 12 hrs.
    That's a second piece of info. BUT the important point is that the second benchmark mainly measures the speed and efficiency at which the CPU (and the system as a whole) goes into deep sleep. Going into deep sleep fast is important for battery life, CPU performance is important for snappiness ---both are good benchmarks for the user experience. But neither measures what we want.

    What we want is a benchmark that operates like this:
    - starting with a fully charged device (with screen off and wireless off), run Geekbench over and over. At the end of each run, Geekbench records to permanent storage an incremented count and a timestamp. The process runs until the battery dies.
    From this one can know how many geek benches ran, and how long the took, which allows one to calculate a "Geekbenches per Watt-hour" metric. THAT is as close to "CPU efficiency" as one is likely to get easily, given the realities of different devices, OSs, limited control over the device, etc.
    It's not a perfect measure, in particular it's very misleading if one of the CPUs has AES and SHA instructions and the other doesn't, but assuming that's not the case it's about the best we can do today.

    THIS would be the interesting metric in terms of quantifying which of Cyclone vs Haswell vs Silvermont is most absolutely efficient. I honestly don't know how it would turn out. Intel have process and circuit advantage, Haswell has the advantage of having thrown vastly more man-hours and transistors at the problem (for which you pay in the dollar price of the part...). Cyclone has the advantage of a substantially simpler architecture which allows you to spend more time optimizing and less time just getting the damn thing to work in verification and debugging --- but of course Apple is not nearly as experience as Intel in managing project of this size optimally.

    (If one had this information, there are other interesting things one could also learn. In particular, the graph of geek bench runtimes as a the run count changes could be interesting in terms of seeing which devices are forced to thermally throttle, and how rapidly this kicks in. Of course that effect also confuses the actual number we are trying to calculate, so one may want to do one run with natural cooling, and one run with the device having a heavy duty fan continually blowing chilled air over the device.)
  • Wilco1 - Saturday, May 31, 2014 - link

    Perf/Watt is not a fixed number. So you can indeed test perf/Watt at maximum performance like you state, but that result is not actually that useful. If you say ran at 100%, 75%, 50% or 25% of performance the perf/Watt results would be very different (and one CPU may win at 100% but another may win at 25%). It gets even more complicated for multithreaded workloads as you can choose to run one CPU at 100% or 4 CPUs at 25% - these will get different perf/Watt results depending on the process and microarchitecture.

    For phones/tablets the issue is that the average use case is more like 1% of maximum performance, and so testing at 100% performance does not produce a meaningful result.
  • pauliek - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    Three things:
    1. You did not even mention Intel's modems. Rockchip has no modems but will soon need them, and Intel's are actually pretty good. My guess is that the modem in this deal is just as important as the CPU.
    2. Intel is famously paying customers to use its tablet chips because its design is too expensive. When they stress that this is "strategic", that probably means it will teach them to design for low cost.
  • pauliek - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    3. I deleted the third before posting and can't edit now, sorry.
  • abufrejoval - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    While this is a strategic deal, I'm wondering whether for the first product this is a fab deal or an IP block deal: I guess all Intel mobile IP blocks currently aren't actually fab'ed on Intel, so this would be IP block.

    I'm also guessing, Intel doesn't seem to get any significant ROI on their radio stuff, being all discrete outside Intel SoCs and therefore not easily competitive with Qualcom on power terms.

    It must be good or at least on par with discrete Qualcom modems, because it's showing up even in Samsung devices paired with Exynos (or Samsung dislikes Qualcom's LTE dominance enough to partner with Intel wherever they can).

    But it would certainly be better fully Soc and this may be what this deal is about primarily.

    But if this were to be a fab deal, with Rockchip SoCs done on 22nm or 14nm Intel processes, that could make even Apple pale. Don't see how how this could happen inside 2 years, though, because Intel fabs simply aren't open SoC..

    On the other hand, they are probably running underutilized and that's hurting...

    Please, more information!
  • mrdude - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    According to eetimes, the Rockchip SoCs will still be fabbed at TSMC and any sort of transition won't happen until 2016. These SoCs are low cost (only 3G connectivity), so utilizing a bleeding edge fab process is out of the question.

    This seems like a case of eating your toes in order to stave off starvation. Sure, Intel is penetrating the mobile market and gaining market share, but just how much money are they burning doing it? And what about the staggering PC space and decreasing laptop ASPs? All of these moves made toward mobile yet Intel seems less and less likely to ever turn a profit.
  • toyotabedzrock - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    They are risking a bunch of jobs if those Cpu designs are stolen.

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