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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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RE: Dead before it comes out...
By StevoLincolnite on 12/29/2011 1:25:59 AM , Rating: 5
I don't completely agree.

As you decrease in the manufacturing nodes... The smaller the percentage that retaining x86 and x64 has on the die size.
I remember reading an interview that Anand had with an AMD engineer talking about it a long time ago.

Eventually it will reach a point that the die-area cost of x86 and in turn x64 will be insignificant, yet the backwards compatibility with over 15+ years of software and games is simply huge.

For example, Take the game known as Master of Orion 2 which is almost 16 years old , it functions brilliantly on my Atom powered tablet even with the touch screen. - Which funnily enough the game pre-dates such technology that is now common place.
With Resolutions on phones now approaching resolutions we had 15 years ago on the PC... I would love to be able to play such games on the go.

I consider the mid/late 90's the golden age of gaming where developers weren't afraid of trying new things where you had classics like Master of Orion, Sacrifice, Battlezone, Mech Warrior and the likes, would be a shame to loose them in the passage of time never to be played again.
Better than the sequels that get thrown out year after year with very little changed.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By Lerianis on 12/29/11, Rating: 0
RE: Dead before it comes out...
By StevoLincolnite on 12/29/2011 12:26:40 PM , Rating: 3
That is more because of a good 'emulation' software or a rewrite to the code that makes it compatible there.

Nope. Used my original copy from 1996 on CD in it's original packaging.
I had to image the disc and chuck it on a flash drive first, but Master of Orion 2 was just an install and play.

The fact is that at some point in the future, even smartphones are going to be 64-bit or the equivalent ARM architecture so that they can address more than 4GB's of memory for the OS, thereby making things faster.

Not exactly, ARM doesn't have to go 64bit to address a memory pool larger than 4gb.
They can (They might have already?) implement LPAE also known as large physical address extension.
Similar thing exists in the x86 world known as PAE.
It would enable the chips to address up to 1 Terabyte of memory.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By name99 on 12/29/2011 3:45:54 PM , Rating: 1
You do know that all these issues have already been resolved, right?

A15 brings an extended memory model called LPAE, which behaves somewhat like PAE though, as I understand it, the reason for it is very different.
PAE was about allowing many apps (each using less than 4GB) to utilize the memory of a system with more than 4GB. This is a model that makes sense for servers, but not for phones where few apps (especially really large apps) run at once.
So LPAE is more about providing a clean way for co-processors (like GPU) to share memory with the CPU. (ARM don't say this, but I would not be surprised if another reason for LPAE is to allow flash storage to be brought "directly" into the memory hierarchy, the way IBM AS/400 works. I could see Apple working towards this.)

Meanwhile A64, the Arm64 bit extensions have also been defined, including the new registers and memory model.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By Samus on 12/30/2011 1:50:22 AM , Rating: 1
I love all this talk about x86 is so awesome because of 15+ years of backwards compatibility.

Anything designed to run on x86 thats more than even a FEW YEARS OLD will run at full speed through emulation. Apple bet on that when they moved from PPC to x86 and it worked perfectly. And who can forget about DOSBOX?

The reality is any modern operating system (for tablet or phone) isn't going to run x86 programs just because it has an x86 processor, because the operating system (unless its Windows 8) isn't going to be compatible with the executables (Android on x86 obviously can't run Windows programs.)

Intel is literally pushing a bloated tank uphill by sticking with x86 on mobile platforms. x86 command set has been stacked on like a Sega console: you can add a Genesis, Sega CD, and 32x; in the end you still have the same old-school core system using more and more electricity.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By french toast on 12/30/2011 7:18:04 AM , Rating: 1
Im sorry i dont get all this talk about 15 year backwards compatibility with ancient x86 games and software...
Who cares??
The smartphone and tablet market..which lets face it is what we are talking about here, the MAJORITY of people running arm version windows or google equivalent arnt going to worry about that,

Besides very quickly the most important x86 apps that would benefit being on a tablet/smartphone will be re-writen for arm..problem solved.
Of course there will be a small niche of people that will benefit from all the old that case they will have to do with a full laptop/pc variant.

I get the feeling however that not a whole lot of them apps will be optimised for a screen/touch input method and so wont be used, instead developers will just release a more up to date touch friendly version on arm for the masses.

Qualcomm krait/cortex a-15 have extensions enabling 40 bit memory addressing i think that what you were saying above...

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By sprockkets on 12/29/2011 9:28:27 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah, but this isn't the desktop. You'd have a hell of a time convincing the smartphone world to go to x86 instead of just the desktop world staying on x86.

And I'm not going to have x86 and Intel's empire last any longer.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By NellyFromMA on 12/29/2011 10:21:45 AM , Rating: 2
What makes you think you're not supporting the making of a new ARM empire instead.............

Intel's empire has supported probably virtually all of the daily benefits in your life for the past 20 years provided you are that old....

ARM just provided you with a fun handheld for a little bit in recent time, indirectly....

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By sprockkets on 12/29/2011 11:34:56 AM , Rating: 2
ARM allows for each company to make different implementations, Intel, well, there's that whole AMD saga, and their anti-trust BS.

Intel should have just kept Xscale and kept on working on it.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By name99 on 12/29/2011 3:23:42 PM , Rating: 1
As you decrease in the manufacturing nodes... The smaller the percentage that retaining x86 and x64 has on the die size.
I remember reading an interview that Anand had with an AMD engineer talking about it a long time ago.

Eventually it will reach a point that the die-area cost of x86 and in turn x64 will be insignificant, yet the backwards compatibility with over 15+ years of software and games is simply huge.

You just don't get it.
The point is NOT the die costs of x86 compatibility; it is the COMPLEXITY costs. To get FULL x86 compatibility (including ALL that crap --- segments, 286 mode, virtual x86 mode, SMM, PAE, MMX sharing registers with x87 FP --- which by itself is useless because any sane programmer uses SSE for FP --- on and on it goes), all that requires phenomenal complexity --- which means Intel cannot change these chips and improve them as fast as ARM.

We've already seen this. Intel have been at this for a few years now. They know it matters. They have vastly more resources than ARM. Yet EVERYTHING they ship is too little too late. That's the cost of complexity.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By dsx724 on 12/30/2011 5:52:17 AM , Rating: 2
So right!
ARM is a light scalable architecture with low complexity due to lack of legacy compatibility. x86 is a minefield of archaic design decisions, instructions, registers, and mmu that will hinder VLSI to production-masks from a costs, testing, time, performance, power perspective. You can pump out 10 ARM designs in the time it takes to design 1 x86 processor so its going to be really hard for Intel to compete in the highly integrated space.

RE: Dead before it comes out...
By french toast on 12/30/2011 7:54:58 AM , Rating: 2
That may or may not be true, however i also read somewhere on anandtech that the performance improvements the lower you go down past 32/22nm get a lot smaller.
Someone else mentioned on this thread about the small difference between ivy bridge and sandy bridge as proof.

This whole nonsense about backwards compatibilty with 15 year old apps and games is pointless, all the old apps are not optimised for small smartphone touchscreens (see windows 7 tablets) and so it will greatly benefit the developers to re release any apps that would be beneficial to be newly optimised that way for the millions of ARM smartphones that will be ALREADY SHIPPING next year.

And only a reletive small number or techies (or geeks) would think about them anyway, most average people will just trot to the available app store and find eveythink they need right there.

Regardless of whether what you said is true or not, intel is ALREADY ahead on process nodes and is knowhere near competetive.
22NM doesnt arive within the next 18months or so and thatS according to optimistic pdf slides that would MAYBE make them competitive now...18 months is WAY WAY too late.

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