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Intel announces Atom X3 SoFIA, its new best hope for smartphone relevance

Mark Hachman | March 3, 2015
At Mobile World Congress, Intel unwraps details on its Atom chips—the X3, X5, and X7—which will appear in mobile devices later this year.

Intel executives have conceded that they still haven't caught up with Qualcomm in designing processors for smartphones and tablets. But with new "SoFIA" Atom X3 systems-on-a-chip (SoCs), along with the new "Cherry Trail" Atom X5 and X7, Intel's getting closer.

Although all three products share the Atom name, they really represent two different product families. Intel's Atom X3 is Intel's best hope for the smartphone market, as the SoC contains an integrated 3G radio along with an application processor. Both the X5 and X7 are more conventional Atom processors, lack an integrated radio, and will appear in larger, more powerful tablets.

While Intel is eager to discuss the performance of the new chips, there are still significant questions concerning how customers will accept them. Intel declined to discuss the Atom X3's power consumption, but said the chip will ship into the cheapest of smartphones.

As for the new 14-nm "Cherry Trail" Atom X5 and Atom X7 chips, they'll consume roughly the same amount of power as their "Bay Trail" predecessors--which were manufactured in an older, less efficient 22-nm process.

Intel executives spoke to reporters ahead of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, perhaps the most important smartphone show in the world.

"It used to be phones were only about voice, and a little bit of data," said Aicha Evans, vice president and general manager of Intel's Platform Engineering Group. "Now...it's about voice, the camera of choice...and uploading and downloading photos to many of their friends. For many around the world, with emerging economies, these are the first devices that allow people to get on the Internet."

Why this matters: On paper, Intel's Atom chips don't look all that impressive compared to what Qualcomm's shipping. Qualcomm is still generations ahead, although Intel's Sofia chip is the first to integrate a 3G radio and an embedded processor, which are table stakes for the smartphone market. "They're still setting the pace," Evans said of Qualcomm. "I am happy they're no longer years ahead of us; we're now talking months."

Still, Intel's playing the long game. The company can afford to bide its time and fine-tune its products to what its customers want, allowing the continuing success of its enterprise division to fund innovation.

Atom X3 will target entry-level phones
Intel says that its Atom X3 3G chips will ship into phones selling for less than $75 (think emerging markets), while its more powerful versions will appear in the "value" phone segment, at up to $200 in retail pricing. Intel named several partners that are working with the Atom X3: Besides Asus, mostly all of them are smaller companies or original device makers for other companies, such as ECS, Pegatron, Compal, and Wistron. Lenovo, which designed an earlier phone around Intel's chips, is missing from Intel's line-up.

 

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