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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's Atom X3-C3130 chip, originally code-named SoFIA, will be available as three products: the first, integrated with a 3G radio, has begun shipping, Evans said. A second, slightly more powerful version (also known as the 3G-R or X3-C3230RK), will be made by Intel's licensing partner, Rockchip, and is due later in the first half.

To be truly competitive with Qualcomm and others, however, Intel needs to combine the Atom chip with an LTE radio. That X3-C3440 chip is due in the second half, Evans said. (It's worth noting that Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich said last September that the LTE chip would ship in the first half of 2015.)

Although the 3G and 3G-R chips will only support Android, the LTE chip, timed to coincide with the release of Windows 10, will support Windows 10 phones as well, Evans said.

In 2014, Intel was faced with the daunting task of trying to grow market share in the tablet market, setting a goal of selling chips into 40 million tablets. Intel accomplished that task, but essentially bought its way into the market, using a technique it euphemistically called "contra revenue" to pay tablet makers to use its chips. In September, Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich said that the company has set a numerical smartphone target for 2015, but "would really like to avoid" using contra revenue to achieve it.

Evans confirmed that, saying that contra revenue was originally a "very calculated move" to enter the market. Intel is trying to move beyond that, "trying to get to a point where we don't have to automatically offer contra revenue to offset some of the [bill of materials] costs that we have," she said. But, she added, contra revenue might still be used in small amounts.

Performance, however, is where Intel hopes its new chips will shine. Intel's own estimates say that the Atom X3 3G should be 1.5 times faster than the Qualcomm MSM8212 in terms of the MobileXPRT benchmark, measuring light media editing like applying filters. The 3G-R version should bump that to 1.8 times the Qualcomm chip, the company said.

Likewise, the new Atom X5 and X7 should offer substantial performance benefits. The Atom X7, for example, should be twice as powerful as the prior "Bay Trail" in the GFXBench T-Rex HD (offscreen) benchmark, and 50 percent faster in the 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark, Intel said. Again, however, Evans declined to release any power metrics for the two new chips.

Atom X5, Atom X7: tablet chips for Android, Windows
For Intel's new "Cherry Trail" Atom chips, potential customers include a who's who of industry heavyweights: Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba, with the notable exception of Samsung.


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