Intel's first real attempt at producing an SoC for the smartphone market has left them a little red faced after being well and truly thrashed by ARM based designs, including the new Exynos 4412.
Intel's only SoC suitable for handheld devices is the Z2460, a single core processor with a dual channel memory controller, HyperThreading, and a PowerVR SGX 540 (as found in the original Galaxy S). It's shipping in the Lava Xolo X900, a low cost phone for the Indian market, and will also be powering the upcoming Lenovo K800.
Perhaps the most important distinction to make between the Z2460 and those based on ARM's architecture is that it uses the x86 ISA, a CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) compared to ARM's RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing). This means that Intel's solution must cater for a larger set of instructions, and complex pipeline conditions, making it more difficult to design a small and power efficient part.
The choice of x86 over licensing an ARM design left Intel with no choice but to ship with a single HyperThreaded core to compete on power consumption. When first announced, Intel's 32nm Z2460 appeared to be a compelling solution when compared to its 40nm competition. However the large gap between announcement and release, and the very meagre uptake of the SoC, meant that superior designs soon made Intel's attempt look like a bad mistake.
Intel was betting on the 32nm process to pull them though in terms of power consumption, which they managed to achieve, but didn't manage to hit the performance of its multi-core competition. The die size is already quite big with a single core. On the other hand ARM's smaller cores allow for quad and even quint core solutions while maintaining low power consumption.
What should be worrying Intel right now is that these processors that are taking the crown are utilising ARM's Cortex-A9 architecture. This is already approaching end of line, and it's expected that by the end of the year we'll see smartphones utilising the superior Cortex-A15 architecture with Mali-604 GPUs. The Exynos 4412 uses four Cortex A9 cores and an overclocked Mali-400. The A15 parts are expected to be 50% faster at equivalent clock rate, whilst consuming less power than A9 parts. To top it off, they'll be clocked higher too. As for the Mali-604, ARM claims up to 5x higher performance compared to the already spectacular Mali-400.
It certainly looks like Intel is going to have a hard time selling their chips if they can't make a miracle happen soon. Will the news that Samsung's dual-core Cortex-A15 part is due for mass production inspire them to act fast? Or will we see large subsidies on Intel powered smartphones in the near future?