On Feb. 19, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) briefed members of the press and the analyst community of its next generation smartphone platform code-named Merrifield. This chip, now having been formally unveiled, is actually branded the Atom Z3480 and represents Intel's latest effort to try to break into the smartphone market. While Intel still probably has another generation to go before its high end parts are considered truly "leadership" (particularly on integration as well as non-CPU/GPU IP blocks) the company has narrowed the gap rather nicely with Merrifield and its big-brother, Moorefield.
Intel finally has a credible smartphone solution for mainstream phones, and for anybody who wants to see it in action take a look at this video uploaded by Intel's Francois Piednoel:
What's An Atom Z3480?
The Atom Z3480 consists of two Silvermont processor cores (max. turbo frequency of 2.13GHz), Imagination Technologies' (OTCPK:IGNMF) PowerVR G6400 (area optimized version of the G6430 found in the Apple A7), a dual channel LPDDR3 1066MT/s memory interface (max theoretical bandwidth of 17GB/s), and dedicated Video and Image Signal Processors (prior generation Intel mobile SoCs did not have a dedicated Video Signal Processor), all baked on Intel's 22-nanometer SoC process (likely one optimized for ultra high density as shown in the below image from the Investor Meeting).
This chip is a pretty major step up from the preceding Clover Trail+ part (which, unfortunately, was quickly eclipsed by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 at launch). Further, since it can be paired with Intel's first generation XMM 7160 LTE modem, the platform can finally penetrate markets that were previously off-limits due to a lack of LTE support. It's also nice to see that Merrifield supports the latest version of Google's Android KitKat.
All in all, this isn't a bad platform by any stretch of the imagination and if it is priced aggressively against Qualcomm's mid-range and low-end solutions (think Snapdragon 400/600), it would actually be quite compelling, particularly given the very high single threaded performance as well as the GPU strength for that class of phone. A dual core Silvermont with G6400 on 22nm solution should offer meaningfully higher performance than all but Qualcomm's highest-end Snapdragon 800-series of processors. It should also be fairly cost-effective given that it is using an area-optimized version of Imagination Tech's already very area-efficient PowerVR Series 6 GPU and only two Silvermont cores.
The key to the success/failure of this platform will be in how aggressively Intel is pricing the SoC as well as the LTE modem in a single package. At the very high end of the market, Merrifield isn't quite good enough to go up against a Snapdragon 800 (from either a raw performance standpoint or from the perspective of the modem it comes paired with), and at the mid-range/low-end, Intel will need to compete with the integration levels of Qualcomm's mid-range parts (which often include cellular baseband and connectivity on-die). With aggressive pricing, Intel could break through these barriers and "win" on better CPU/GPU performance, but without it, the OEMs will likely find the solution too expensive and instead opt for a Qualcomm/MediaTek solution.
Atom Z3480 Already Has A Successor: Moorefield
It's obvious that Intel intended Merrifield for the high end of the market, but the market moved too quickly for this part to be meaningful in the space at which it was originally targeted. This is leading Intel to accelerate the time-to-market for its Moorefield system-on-chip. According to my conversations with Intel, Merrifield devices will be available in 1H 2014, and Moorefield devices will be more a 2H 2014 story.
Moorefield will be a pretty straightforward enhancement of Merrifield, as the following chart shows:
As you can see, the memory bandwidth is significantly enhanced (going from LPDDR3 1066MT/s to LPDDR3 1600MT/s, or a roughly a 50% increase in memory bandwidth to a whopping 25GB/s, which is Snapdragon 805 territory), Moorefield goes from two cores in Merrifield at 2.13GHz to four cores at 2.3GHz, the platform is paired with the much-improved XMM 7260 LTE-Advanced modem, and the GPU goes from the G6400 to the G6430 (the same one found in the Apple A7, except clocked higher thanks to Intel's process superiority).
This part should be more or less competitive with the upcoming Snapdragon 805 from a CPU/CPU performance perspective in a thermally-constrained environment. Not quite leadership, though, as the Snapdragon 805 will be in devices first. Further, Snapdragon 805 has more advanced camera/imaging support (Merrifield/Moorefield top out at 13MP rear cameras while Snapdragon 805 will support up to 42MP cameras). It will also be on the market during 1H 2014 while Moorefield is a 2H 2014 deal. Intel gets even closer to "leadership" with Moorefield, but it really will take one more generational leap with Broxton in order for Intel to be considered a true, no-nonsense competitor to Qualcomm at the high end.
The Obligatory Benchmarks
In the press-deck, Intel included the following benchmark comparing the Z3480 to the Snapdragon 800 in web applications:
Now, these charts are all relative to Intel's older generation "Clover Trail+" and running a benchmark called WebXPRT. Now, Intel's official stance on benchmarks is that traditional CPU benchmarks isn't what matters and that, instead, "user experience" based benchmarks are what should be used to compare system-on-chip products. While I would take these results with a grain of salt (as Intel was the "major developer" of the XPRT series of benchmarks), it is an interesting philosophy that could serve as the basis for future mobile benchmarks longer-term.
The GPU benchmark results included, however, are much more conventional:
In this benchmark, the Merrifield CPU is marginally faster than the Apple A7's GPU (thanks to higher clocks on the G6400) and almost as fast as Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800. This would be much more impressive if Merrifield had been a 2H 2013 part rather than a 1H 2014 one, but this is progress nonetheless. Moorefield should be a bit faster than the Snapdragon 800, but keep in mind that Moorefield based devices need to compete with Apple's upcoming A8 and of course the Snapdragon 805, so performance/power in shipping devices will be the real "tell" here.
What About Battery Life?
These are thermally constrained devices, so of course battery life is a critical measure of the effectiveness of a given mobile SoC. Intel had the following pretty charts to show us:
According to these benchmarks, Merrifield is better performing than the Snapdragon 800-based phones and offers better battery life. Golly-gee, this chip is an unequivocal winner, right? Well, not-so-fast.
In the first chart, you'll notice that Intel includes the Galaxy S4 with LTE-Advanced, the Sony Xperia Z1F, and the Intel Z3480 reference phone. The Galaxy S4 should not even be in this comparison because it features a much larger/higher resolution display. The Xperia Z1F is more or less the same as the Z3480 reference phone. The results here are pretty impressive: the Merrifield-based phone offers 13.7% more battery life even with a 6.9% smaller battery. According to the benchmark (although, again, keep in mind that Intel had a huge hand in writing this particular benchmark), the Intel processor offered 85% more performance while delivering this better battery life (although do keep in mind that if the Intel processor is faster, it will finish its tasks more quickly thus leading to an overall power savings).
In short, Intel seems to have done a good job on the power consumption here. It would have been interesting, however, to get numbers for the more comparable Moorefield chip.
Intel's mobile products continue to get better, but Intel is still about a generation away from leadership. This is disappointing because Intel really does have a nice manufacturing technology lead over the rest of the industry at the 22nm FinFET node (everyone else is currently shipping on the 28nm planar node) but with Merrifield/Moorefield didn't quite fully utilize this advantage. The trajectory is clear, though: Intel is improving its competitive position at a rate that would suggest that it will be contending for leadership in mid-2015 with Broxton as long as all of the IP is up to snuff (camera, video, connectivity, CPU, GPU, etc.).
That being said, it'll be interesting to see what designs Intel actually wins with Merrifield and Moorefield. Intel wasn't too keen to let the press know how many designs Merrifield won, but judging by the pull-in of Moorefield, I wouldn't suspect that it's too many. As always, time will tell.
Disclosure: I am long INTC, IGNMF. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.