Intel announces Atom Z600-series for phones, tablets

New PCH, support for Android, Meego and Moblin

INTEL IS OBVIOUSLY taking its entry into the smartphone market very seriously with today’s introduction of the Moorestown platform, now formally known as the Atom Z600 family. Intel has implemented a wide range of changes compared to the Atom Z500-series, although interestingly, it hasn’t transitioned the Atom Z600-series to its 32nm manufacturing process, instead it remains at 45nm.

Apart from the Atom Z600 (Lincroft), the Moorestown platform is also made up of the MP20 PCH (Langwell) which brings with it a few new features compared to the US15W, but more on that in a little bit. Let’s start with taking a closer look on what’s on offer from the Atom Z600 SoC. Intel will be offering a range of SKU’s with clock speeds of up to 1.5GHz for handhelds and smartphones while tablets will see speeds of up to 1.9GHz. So far Intel has yet to unveil the clock speeds of the various models in the 600-series, but we did spot the model names of at least some of the upcoming models.

According to a footnote on Intel’s Atom product page we’ve managed to determine that Intel is set to launch the Atom Z600, Z605, Z610, Z612, Z615, Z620 and Z625. This same footnote is also suggesting that the Atom Z605 will have a clock speed of 1.0GHz, but it’s also the only new model that lacks what Intel calls BPT or Burst Performance Technology. Think of BPT to be the Atom equivalent of Turbo Boost, albeit at a much shorter period of time. BPT allows the processor to be overclocked for “very short intervals of time”, though we don’t know how short Intel’s short interval of time is.

Intel has also moved the IGP from the chipset to the SoC and this time we’re looking at the GMA 600. Again, we don’t know the exact clock speeds per model, but Intel is promising clock speeds of up to 400MHz for the IGP. The IGP supports resolutions of up to 1366×768 via LVDS or 1024×600 via MIPI (Mobile Industry Processor Interface), of which the latter will most likely be used on many smartphones and other types of handheld devices. The GMA 600 also supports hardware accelerated HD video decoding and encoding for MPEG4 part 2 and H.264, while it will also decode VMC and VC1 content. The new IGP is still based on Power-VR technology, although we don’t have any specifics as to which one of Power-VR’s graphics cores as yet.

The memory controller has also been given support for LPDDR1, or Low Power Double Data Rate memory as it’s also known. This is commonly used by many cellular phones as it uses less power than traditional memory types. However, the Atom 600-series also supports DDR2 memory. LPDDR1 is limited to 1GB of 200MHz memory, while using DDR2 allows for up to 2GB of 400MHz memory. The Atom 600-series is limited to single channel 32-bit memory.

Another new feature is Intel’s Smart Idle technology that allows the CPU core as well as the rest of the SoC to power down while the OS remains in an active state. This should help conserve battery life, but we’ll have to wait and see by how much. Features that have been carried over from the previous generation include Hyper Threading support and 512KB of L2 cache. The Atom 600-series measures a tiny 13.8×13.8×1.1mm (WxDxH) which makes it marginally larger than the Atom Z500-series which measures 13x14mm, or 190mm2 versus 182mm2.

However, the MP20 PCH appears to be just as small, if not even smaller, however Intel has yet to be specific about the actual measurements. This should make it vastly smaller than the older US15W which measures a relatively massive 22x22mm or 484mm2. The main part for the smaller PCH is of course the lack of an IGP, although this isn’t the only change. The PCH now has support for “high-resolution cameras”, USB OTG, a built in NAND Flash controller and a “low-power audio engine”. The latter seems to be related to Intel’s Smart Sound technology, or SST, which is a 24-bit audio DSP that handles voice processing and audio playback for a wide range of codec’s. Intel has also added Smart Power Technology (SPT) which is a new fine grained power management approach. Next up we have Smart & Secure Technology (S&ST), which offers hardware encryption and decryption acceleration for a wide range of industry standard algorithms.

The Moorestown platform will also need a third chip, a Mixed Signal IC that handles things like power delivery and battery charging, as well as a wide range of other things such as the touchscreen controller, various sensors (think accelerometers, light sensors, etc.) and various GPIO’s. It’s also part of what enables the low power usage of the Atom 600-series as it handles the power gating “through a series of voltage rails to the Intel Atom processor and PCH”. It appears that Intel won’t be the only supplier of the MSIC, since Intel has worked with Freescale, Maxim and Renesas (formerly NEC) to provide compatible solutions for system manufacturers.

As far as wireless connectivity is concerned, the Moorestown platform supports WiFi, 3G and of course WiMAX. Again, Intel has worked with third parties here and will rely on 3G solutions from ST-Ericsson, while WiFI will come from Marvell and GPS hardware will be provided by Infineon. We’ll most likely see other partnerships down the road if the platform proves popular with the industry.

This brings us to the final and maybe the most interesting part, software support. It’s no great surprise that the Atom 600-series supports Intel’s Moblin and MeeGo operating systems, but Intel has also added support for Android. It will be interesting to see which option will become the most popular out of the three, but considering Android’s strong market acceptance, we’d expect that this might prove to be a winner as far as smartphones are concerned. MeeGo is as yet an unknown factor, but as it builds on Nokia’s Maemo platform as well as Moblin, it might just prove to be popular enough. Moblin makes sense on tablet devices, though it’s likely to be superseded by MeeGo at some point in the future.

Intel also seems to have drummed up a lot of third party support, including Adobe Flash and AIR, Microsoft Silverlight, Real Networks Helix, Skype and even support for World of Warcraft via Crossover to mention a few. This is of course mostly an x86 advantage over ARM rather than exclusive support for the new Intel platform, but if anything, it proves that x86 does have some genuine advantages that ARM is still trying to catch up with.

There are still a lot of details missing, but according to TrustedReview’s Gordon Kelly, who talked to Intel’s director of global ecosystems programmes, Pankaj Kedia, Intel is expecting smartphones with 10 days standby time and tablets with 30 days standby time. In terms of actual usage, things aren’t quite as rosy, with a five hour battery life for smartphones and 10-12 hours for tablets. It’s getting closer to the kind of battery life on offer with ARM processors, but it’s still not quite there. Kedia noted that “It will make us a player in the smartphone sector”, which might very well prove to be true, but is it going to be good enough to convince consumers to purchase x86 based smartphones and tablets?

Kedia goes on to say that the Atom 600-series will offer an overall 1.5 to three times the performance over an ARM Cortex A8 based SoC with two to four times more powerful graphics, four times faster Javascript performance and 1080p video playback at 30fps. Pocket-Lint posted a video of a demo handset running good old Quake 3 at 100fps, although this is a fairly old game now, so it’s not mind blowing by any means. We should be seeing tablet devices launching as soon as the second half of this year, although it appears that smartphones won’t be available until the end of the year. Pocket-Lint claims that there will be a MeeGo powered Moorestown phone in sale in the UK before the end of 2010. You can find most of the presentation slides over at Engadget if you want some additional details, although we’ve covered most of it here.

It’s taken Intel a long time to get to where things are today and it looks like we’ll have to wait for another few months before the first devices appear. In the meantime ARM and its partners aren’t going to sit around and idly let Intel steal customers. We should be starting to see dual-core ARM Cortex A9 based SoC powered smartphones and tablets in about the same timeframe as Intel is hoping to get Moorestown devices into the market. Hopefully this will lead to a price war with the end result being more powerful and affordable devices for consumers.S|A

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