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Linley Newsletter

Medfield Gets It Right

January 12, 2012

Author: Linley Gwennap

The third time’s the charm. After missing on its first two swings, Intel put some wood on the ball with its new Z2460 smartphone processor. The new chip, code-named Medfield, uses Intel’s 32nm technology to combine the functions of the two-chip Moorestown product, forming a single-chip application processor similar to ARM-compatible products such as OMAP and Tegra. More important, the process shrink helped Intel reduce Medfield’s power from Moorestown, finally producing a product that fits into the power envelope of a typical smartphone.

On the performance front, Medfield is a solid single but not a home run. Preliminary testing of Intel prototypes indicate that the 1.6GHz processor delivers better single-thread performance than any current smartphone processor. For multithreaded software, however, the x86 CPU’s SMT (simultaneous multithreading) design will not scale as well as a dual-core (or quad-core) design, an advantage all competing ARM vendors can offer. Furthermore, 28nm processors using Cortex-A15 or Qualcomm’s Krait CPU are likely to exceed Medfield even on single-thread benchmarks when they ship in phones later this year.

To broaden Atom’s appeal, Intel has shifted its software focus from Meego to Android. The company has ported the Gingerbread release (Android 2.3) and is working on Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0). OEMs will still need to port their user interface, browser, and middleware from ARM to x86. Android apps are written in Java, an interpreted language that runs on either ARM or x86, but many apps include some ARM code. Intel is working with app developers to port these apps to x86 and, as a last resort, has developed software technology to support apps compiled for ARM.

The first Medfield device will be the Lenovo K800 smartphone, shipping in 2Q12 to China Unicom. At CES, Intel announced that Motorola Mobility is developing smartphones and tablets using Medfield, with the first products shipping in 2H12. A few other OEMs may jump on board later, giving Intel some momentum in the smartphone market. We expect these OEMs to ramp Medfield volumes slowly, as they would with any new supplier. To expand its performance advantage, Intel plans to rapidly release new smartphone processors. We see Medfield as the first step in the company’s plan to become a major supplier of mobile processors.

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