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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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Misleading Power Analysis
By Khato on 12/29/2011 2:42:19 AM , Rating: 5
While the platform power consumption numbers aren't great (as the source article states, Intel is still a fair bit off their goals) they're hardly as bad as the analysis makes them out to be.

First, with respect to the smartphone 'napkin math'... Yes, that's what would happen if you ran a tablet off a smartphone battery. Because that 2.6W idle number isn't just Medfield, it's Medfield + all supporting chips + display.

Second, the comparison to Tegra 2's 1W power consumption is horribly invalid for much the same reason - a 10 inch tablet using a Tegra 2 processor uses a fair amount more than 1W under load. In fact, a Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks to draw a bit over 4W when streaming 720p flash video (25.9Wh battery lasts ~5.5 hours). Oh, and I doubt that Intel's design goal of 2.6W under load is a coincidence - the iPad 2 apparently draws around that much when it's streaming 720p flash video.

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By IntelUser2000 on 12/29/2011 5:43:46 AM , Rating: 2

There was an article about how people were losing trust in online information because inaccuracies like these are rampant. This article is a prime example of that.

To put that in perspective again, 2.6W with Flash means with a 25WHr battery like in the iPad 2, it would last ~10 hours, which is similar to what the iPad achieves in battery life.

You don't see anyone making fun of A5's power usage do you?

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By JasonMick on 12/29/2011 9:16:14 AM , Rating: 1
First, with respect to the smartphone 'napkin math'... Yes, that's what would happen if you ran a tablet off a smartphone battery. Because that 2.6W idle number isn't just Medfield, it's Medfield + all supporting chips + display.

You could be right, but Theo at VR-Zone (see the source link) who somehow got the reference design, appeared to be claiming that the CPU consumption was that high. It's entirely possible that he took the tablet apart and measured the current going to the screen, etc.

If you turned off the 3G/Wi-Fi, your only major current draw would be the screen... so you could pretty easily make a relatively accurate estimate of pure power consumption.

Regardless, I was never trying to make the point that the final power consumption target was inappropriate for a tablet, merely that it was not compatible with a smartphone, which I think we could agree on.

While I respect your comparison with the A5, I think it's clear that Medfield's power performance isn't scaling well in underclocked parts.

Remember Medfield was SUPPOSED to be a smartphone chip. If power performance didn't suck in the underclocked parts, why would Intel be scrapping its smartphone bid and making yet another tablet chip, which it already has two families of?

As I said right up front, Theo didn't do the best job writing up precise details about where he got his numbers, etc. I tried to be precise in detailing where the lack of clarity lies... you raise an excellent point w.r.t. whether the LCD was factored out of the power consumption numbers.

That said, I think it's clear that this release is Intel trying to buy time for Medfield and put it out in some form onto the market, albeit turning a smartphone chip into a tablet one...

As I said, Intel's big opportunity will come in 2013 with Medfield's 3D FinFET equipped successor. That chip might finally scale well enough to see a real smartphone deployment, which Intel has long promised, but thus far failed to do.

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By IntelUser2000 on 12/29/2011 9:42:22 AM , Rating: 2
Big misunderstanding IMO.

According to the same guy, Intel's aim is for 2W idle and 2.6W flash video playback. Since the same company claims the smartphone Medfield will be competitive with competitors in power consumption, 2/2.6 number has to be for the platform.

"Few weeks ahead of the official launch, we now have first performance numbers of "Medfield Tablet Platform."

And tell me how do you suppose they'll isolate CPU power on such an integrated device like a prototype Tablet? You are making absolutely no sense here. The Menlow chip from 2008 has idle power usage of 100mW, which is 1/20th of 2W.

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By JasonMick on 12/29/2011 10:57:09 AM , Rating: 2
And tell me how do you suppose they'll isolate CPU power on such an integrated device like a prototype Tablet? You are making absolutely no sense here. The Menlow chip from 2008 has idle power usage of 100mW, which is 1/20th of 2W.

Simple -- disassemble the frame, then start the benchmark running and unplug the screen. That be the quickest and dirtiest way to isolate the CPU, in my mind.

Again, I don't know if they did that, though...

But again if you think the power performance is so great, why do you think they aren't trying to put the thing on a smartphone, as they originally intended? It just doesn't make sense.

If the power consumption wasn't struggling, they'd be putting Medfield in a smartphone test platform in a heartbeat...

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By Khato on 12/29/2011 2:01:27 PM , Rating: 2
Uhmmmm, look at page 14 -

Considering that's basically a presentation to investors, I'd expect the information to be relatively accurate... with the expected amount of bias of course.

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By french toast on 12/30/2011 7:30:59 AM , Rating: 1
I agree, its going to be funny though as LG is rumoured to be releaseing medfield PHONES at CES....that is going to be really interesting...
15mm thick slabs weighing close to 200g, with 3g, QVGA screens getting 5 hours battery life STANDBY...
Intel its nearly 2012..not 2008.

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By name99 on 12/29/2011 3:55:47 PM , Rating: 3
the iPad 2 apparently draws around that much when it's streaming 720p flash video.

It's a little hard to take seriously ANYTHING in a blog comment that talks about iPads playing flash video. You do understand this, right?

RE: Misleading Power Analysis
By Khato on 12/29/2011 4:15:44 PM , Rating: 2
Haha, true enough. Sorry if such confused you - I tend to use the term 'flash video' interchangeably with 'streaming video'. Since what we're interested in here is actual worst-case power consumption, and video playback where all data is being streamed through wi-fi typically beats out any other usage.

By psychobriggsy on 1/1/2012 4:42:40 PM , Rating: 2
From what I've read, it actually is just the SoC only. Not the display. Not the I/O hub. Just the CPU, Graphics, Sound, etc, in the SoC.

A typical 10" IPS display uses around 2W of power. I think you can see why Apple's chips aren't running at the same speeds as the competition, but get better battery lives.

Most SoCs use well under 1W when streaming video because it is a hardware function with little CPU interaction. 2.6W ... that's 0.6W SoC and 2W display. Medfield will be 3W SoC and 2W display.

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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