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This might be a good chip for tablets, but not so much for smartphones

Numbers have reportedly leaked via VR-Zone on the performance of CPU kingpin Intel Corp.'s (INTCMedfield, the company's tardy upcoming ultra-mobile CPU.  Now it's important to exercise a bit of caution as the credibility of these figures is questionable and even if they're the real deal, Medfield is still reportedly a half-year or more away from launch. 

With that said, let's dig into them.

I. The Platform

First, let's look at the leaked specs for the tablet platform:                                                                                 
  • 32 nm process
  • 1.6GHz CPU
  • 1GB of DDR2 RAM
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • FM radio
  • GPU (no details given)
Noticeably absent from the leaked materials was any reference to a baked-in 4G LTE (or 3G GSM/CDMA) modem.  Also absent was the very important CPU core count figure (based on the performance, this appears to be a dual-core chip).

The leak appears to consist of a benchmarked Red Ridge tablet.  Red Ridge is the name of the Android 3.2 Honeycomb tablet reference design, which Intel previewed in September.  Given past information, it appears likely that Red Ridge does have a 3G modem onboard, though whether it's on-die remains to be seen.

Red Ridge tablets
Intel's Red Ridge platform will be the first target for Medfield, after Intel scrapped plans for a smartphone platform. [Image Source: The Verge (left); VR-Zone (right)]

II. A Powerful Little Piece of Silicon

Now the good news -- Medfield appears to be pretty fast.  To give a point of comparison, let's look at top ARM chipmakers' current bread-and-butter smartphone chips, NVIDIA Corp.'s (NVDA) Tegra 2, Qualcomm Inc.'s (QCOM) MSM8260 third-generation Snapdragon, and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KS:005930) Exynos were benchmarked (VR-Zone's report made it unclear whether these benchmarks were performed by the blog or by Intel) and gave:
Medfield v. the rest

So Medfield is a fast little bugger, capable of beating up on the current generation ARM smartphone chips.  But the numbers are a bit deceptive as Medfield is more of a tablet chip (more on that in a bit), so it should have gone up against Tegra 3, but for some reason the testers instead put it up against Tegra 2.  As they did not give the Samsung platform tested, it's very possible they pulled a similar shenanigan with Samsung's chip, testing the lower clocked smartphone variant, versus the higher clocked tablet variant.

That said, the numbers do indicate unquestionably that Medfield is going to be in the ballpark of ARM in terms of processing power, possibly even beating the ARM chips.

III. Medfield: Battery-Guzzler Edition

Now the bad news: the power budget is quite high.  The platform reportedly has a 2.6W TDP at idle and a maximum power consumption of 3.6W when playing 720P Flash video.  By launch the maximum power is intended to drop to 2.6W, while the idle is also likely to drop a fair bit.

Still, these numbers are pretty horrible if Intel hopes to squeeze Medfield on a smartphone.  Some quick "napkin math":
  • An average smartphone battery is around 1600 mAh
  • The output voltage is typically 3.7 V
  • The total battery power is thus 5.92 Wh
  • Thus the platform would last a bit over two hours at idle in a smartphone before dying
Low battery, Android
Intel's new chip could only muster about two hours of battery life in a smartphone.
[Image Source: Namran blog]

In other words there's no way Intel can hope to launch this chip in a smartphone.

It's disappointing to see Intel is still trailing so badly in power.  For example, a loaded Tegra 2 reportedly draws around 1 W, meaning that it could sip the aforementioned battery for around 6 hours before kicking the bucket.  Intel's chip is fast, but it appears to be a "battery-guzzler".

More troubling is the fact that these results come from a 32 nm part, where as NVIDIA and Qualcomm have 40 nm parts (Samsung is also at the 32 nm node).  In other words, that process advantage Intel is always talking about appears to be nonexistent here.

Intel's best hope power-wise is its 3D FinFET technology, which wil be introduced to Medfield sometime in the 2013-2014 window.  That will likely be the true test of Intel's fading hopes in the mobile space.  If Intel's 22 nm finFET transistor chip can't meet or beat ARM in power budget, it's game over.

IV. Launching Soon in a Tablet Near You 

Lastly let's examine what else is known about Medfield.

Intel reportedly hopes to launch the chip in "early 2012".  As laid out here, it seems obvious that this is a tablet-only launch.

The launch is being spearheaded by Intel's new "Mobile and Communications" business unit.  Intel has merged four separate units -- Mobile Communications, Mobile Wireless, Netbook & Tablet PC, and Ultra-Mobility -- to form the new super-unit.

The unit is headed by Mike Bell and Hermann Eul.  Mr. Bell has a particularly interesting history.  He was at Apple, Inc. (AAPL) and helped design the first iPhone.  From there he jumped ship to Palm.  And when Palm was in its final throes pre-acquisition, he jumped ship in 2010 to Intel.  So it's fair to say he has a bit of mobile experience.

Medfield was originally intended to be a smartphone platform.  Instead -- likely due to poor power performance -- it has morphed into a third leg in Intel's tablet push.  Intel already has released Oak Trail -- a beefier platform with PCI support, designed for Windows 7 tablets -- and Moorestown -- a lighter platform ideal for Android tablets.  Presumably Medfield will take the role of a leaner Moorestown, or perhaps step in as a Moorestown replacement.

It has a tough road ahead as Intel has thus far had almost no traction in the ARM-dominated tablet market.  The problems in the tablet department are familiar -- Intel's tablets tend to be powerful, but have poor battery life and run hot.

Source: VR-Zone



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Unimpressive
By tviceman on 12/29/2011 1:22:37 AM , Rating: 3
So by the time it comes to market, it will be 40-50% faster than Tegra 2, a chip that will have been out for 2 years and will no longer be in production by then. They didn't compare it to Tegra 3, because the report is supposed to make Medfield look good. In all likelihood Tegra 3 is faster in most situations, and still uses less power.

Just about every 28nm dual core ARM cpu should be faster and the power draw for 28nm ARM cpu's will be a third of what Medfield is supposed to be. In order for Mefield to compete with time between charges, there will have to be a heavier battery onboard which is totally undesirable for a tablet. Also notice how no information on GPU performance was given. Not a good sign at all.

This chip will power very few products and will have an extremely short life. Intel will still be playing catch up and in the meantime companies like Nvidia and Qualcomm are building on the ARM design and releasing innovative new mobile CPU's. Maybe when Intel can migrate their ultra mobile CPU's to 22nm they can finally compete, but the cycle of playing catch up is going to be hard to equalize.




RE: Unimpressive
By B3an on 12/29/2011 2:09:28 AM , Rating: 2
Completely agree. And the Samsung Exynos in my GSII will likely match Medfield right now if it also ran at the same clockspped (1.6GHz). I can actually overclock it to that speed, and even at that speed and 100% load it lasts far longer than 2 hours, which Medfield will likely last at idle with a typical smartphone battery.

At this rate theres no way Intels 22nm will save them when Medfield finally moves to that. Look at Ivy Bridge CPU's based on 22nm, they are not a massive improvement over current 32nm Sandy Bridge for power comsumption, and Intel really does need a MASSIVE improvement here, atleast 4x better. IF Intel can ever even come close to ARM it wont likely be for atleast 3+ years.


RE: Unimpressive
By french toast on 12/30/2011 7:03:48 AM , Rating: 2
Yea i also agree, have you got any info on the tdp comparison between ivy/sandybridge?? i wonder what the power difference is as i heard they are only optmising for effeciency not performance now amd is out of the game....

Certainly it wont be 4x or anywhere near...and they need that just to compete with current a9 40nm designs...


RE: Unimpressive
By Gondor on 12/29/2011 7:54:59 AM , Rating: 2
Would it be possible to use "scrap area" of wafers used in Ivy Bridge production (area around the edge of the wafer) to squeeze many tiny 22 nm Atom chips inthere instead of wasting theose parts with chopped-off Ivy Bridge dies which have to be canned anyway ?

"Free chips", sort of.


RE: Unimpressive
By steven975 on 12/29/2011 9:33:21 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure, but I'm positive any chipmaker has thought of that.

I think the challenges would be the lithography and separation/testing of 2 different products from one wafer, and they may not be set up for that.


RE: Unimpressive
By tviceman on 12/29/2011 2:39:53 PM , Rating: 2
I have no idea if it's possible to fabricate two completely different chips on the same wafer. Anyone?


RE: Unimpressive
By JKflipflop98 on 12/29/2011 9:42:31 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, yes it is.


RE: Unimpressive
By tviceman on 12/30/2011 11:01:31 AM , Rating: 2
Wow that surprises me. I wonder if this is an often used technique? Especially with wafers meant to primarily make big chips, like Nvidia's. Nvidia would be doing themselves a big favor to put their low end GPU's on the outer parts of the wafer where it would otherwise cut off their big chips.


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