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Spreadtrum Extends Intel Alliance

March 20, 2018

Author: Linley Gwennap

Spreadtrum, China’s leading mobile-processor supplier, has an aggressive plan to become a smartphone-technology leader with help from Intel. The two companies will work together to develop a 5G smartphone chipset that they plan to deploy by the end of 2019. Spreadtrum has already developed two smartphone processors combining Intel’s x86 CPU cores with a Spreadtrum modem and built in Intel’s fabs. The new chipset will feature an Intel 5G modem and, in a twist, ARM CPUs.

Spreadtrum is a subsidiary of the state-owned Tsinghua Unigroup. In 2014, Intel acquired a minority stake in Unigroup and signed a joint-development agreement. Three years later, Spreadtrum released its first x86-based processor, the SC9861G-IA. This chip found few, if any, customers, but the company forged ahead, releasing the SC9853i last fall.

The newer device offers less performance, sporting eight x86 Airmont CPUs running at 1.8GHz and a dual-core Mali-T820 GPU that offers about half the performance of the predecessor’s PowerVR GT7200. The video engine is downgraded from 4K to 1080p, and the maximum camera resolution drops from 26 megapixels to 16MP. Surprisingly, the LTE modem is actually better: 300Mbps on the downlink and 150Mbps on the uplink. Intel builds both processors in its 14nm FinFET technology.

Intel’s Airmont design delivers better per-clock performance than Cortex-A53 but falls well behind Arm’s “big” cores, such as Cortex-A73. The SC9853 performs reasonably well on CPU benchmarks, but the remainder of the SoC platform is best suited to low-cost smartphones. The first phone to use the x86 chip is the Leagoo T5c, an oversize model with a 5.5-inch screen that sells for less than $100. In addition, Senwa Mobile recently announced two SC9853-based phones. But most Spreadtrum customers prefer the company’s older ARM-compatible processors, leading it to return to ARM for the next-generation chipset.

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