Lenovo’s Android-based K900, the first phone to use Intel’s dual-core 2GHz “Clover Trail+” Atom Z2580 system-on-chip, began shipping in China, and ZTE announced a Z2580-based, 4.5-inch “Grand X2 In” aimed at Europe. Yet, Atom-based Android phones won’t truly shine until Intel’s “Merrifield” SOC arrives in early 2014 using Intel’s 22nm, Tri-Gate “Silvermont” architecture.
The first x86-based Android smartphones shipped only about a year ago, when Lava launched its Xolo X900 in India based on Intel’s 32nm “Medfield” Atom Z2460. This was followed by several other 1.6GHz Medfield Android phones closely following the same Intel reference design: Lenovo’s LePhone K800 (China), Orange’s San Diego (U.K.), MegaFon’s Mint (Russia), and ZTE’s Grand X In (Europe).
ZDE Grand X2 In, Lava Xolo X900, Mot Razr i
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In September, Motorola upped the ante with its Razr i, which claimed to be the world’s first 2GHz smartphone. The 4.3-inch Medfield phone ran Android 4.0 and shipped in Europe and Latin America.
Despite the 2GHz clock speed, the single-core Razr i was benchmarked as being slightly slower than phones running a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon. More importantly, although battery life was greatly improved over the widely ignored “Moorestown” Atom, Medfield still trailed the ARM competition, and pricing was on the high side. All told, fewer than a dozen Medfield smartphone models have shipped, and despite being seeded primarily in less competitive markets, sales appear to have been middling. The biggest claim we saw was ZTE’s statement that the Grand X In was the best-selling smartphone in Austria.
Intel Z2580 SOC
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Now comes the updated 32nm “Clover Trail+” design based on the Clover Trail architecture introduced last year for Windows 8 tablets. Clover Trail+ features 4-thread multithreading over two cores, and includes the 2GHz Z2580 SOC found in the ZTE Grand X2 In, as well as a 1.6GHz Z2560 and a 1.2GHz Z2520. According to Intel, the Z2580 provides twice the performance of Medfield when run on the latest version of Jelly Bean (Android 4.2.2), which fully supports Clover Trail+ multithreading capabilities.
Intel also claims three times better graphics performance based on its dual PowerVR SGX 544 cores, clocked at 533MHz, 400MHz, or 300MHz depending on the SOC model. In addition, there’s a much improved image signal processor for enhanced camera functionality. Yet, on battery life, Intel was more reticent, saying only that Clover Trail+ would “rival today’s most popular Android phones.” If true, that’s still notable, considering where the Atom was only a short time ago. Too bad the average consumer doesn’t care about making tech history.
The reference design for the Z2580 can handle twice the RAM (2GB) and in something of a breakthrough, four times the onboard NAND flash (256GB) of the Medfield. The design supports 1920 x 1200 (WUXGA) resolution, and up to 16-megapixel cameras. Sadly, the promised multimode LTE baseband won’t arrive until late in the second quarter, once again blocking the first round of Atom phones from reaching the U.S. market. The upcoming Intel XMM 7160 LTE-ready baseband will be the smallest and lowest-power multimode LTE solution on the market, featuring global roaming and strong performance and battery life, claims Intel.
Chinese Vendors Push the Z2580
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So far, Chinese vendors have been the biggest promoters of Clover Trail+ phones. Lenovo announced the first Clover Trail+ phone in January at CES when it unveiled the 5.5-inch Lenovo K900. Notable for its thin, 6.9mm profile and 5.7-ounce weight, the L900 began shipping May 16 in China for 3,299 Yuan, or about $536. Lenovo has backed the phone with a big marketing campaign featuring NBA star Kobe Bryant. The K900 heads for India later this month.
The K900 runs Jelly Bean on a dual-core, 2GHz Z2580, and provides a competitive 2GB of RAM, 16GB of flash, and 1920 x 1080-pixel IPS touchscreen with 400+ ppi dot resolution. A 13-megapixel camera features a wide-aperture F1.8 focal length lens.
ZDE Grand X2 In
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Also this week, ZTE announced its second Clover Trail+ phone: the 4.5-inch ZTE Grand X2 In. Due to arrive in Europe in the third quarter, it follows a 5-inch ZTE Geek model shown in prototype form in April at IDF Beijing, but with few specifics and no indication of timing or markets.
Although the Geek is larger, the devices are otherwise similar, offering more modest specs than the Lenovo K900. They provide 1280 x 720 resolution, 1GB RAM, 8GB onboard flash, and both 8- and 1-megapixel cameras. Despite the disappointing screen, ZTE touts the Grand X2 In’s camera for its “shortest shot-to-shot times on the market, capable of up to 24 frames per second and no shutter lag,” as well as “high image quality” due to the Z2580’s real-time 2x axis stabilization.”
Asus 7-inch Fonepad
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Meanwhile, Intel has also launched a stripped down, dual-core “Lexington” architecture Z2420 (pdf) SOC for the low-end Android phone and tablet markets. In April, Egyptian telecom operator Etisalat Misr began selling its 3.5-inch Z2420-based E-20 phone for the North Africa and Middle East markets, and more Z2420 models are on the way from Acer (Thailand and Malaysia), Lava (India), and Safaricom (Kenya). Other models using the low-cost Z2420 include the Asus 7-inch Fonepad phablet. However, shortly after launching in the U.K., Asus said it was moving up to a 1.6GHz Clover Trail+ Z2460 for the huge phone.
Silvermont a Possible Game Changer
More Android phones and perhaps a few tablets are expected this year based on Intel’s Clover Trail+. While they should do better than Medfield models, they are unlikely to make much headway on the high end against the latest quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, Tegra 4, and Exynos 5 based devices. Performance should be fairly competitive, but battery life is still likely to be an issue.
We have yet to see third-party benchmarks of Clover Trail+ devices, but based on Intel’s modest claims, it is not likely to offer much of a power consumption improvement. In fact, in February, AnandTech speculated that due in part to the faster GPUs, power consumption could even prove to be worse than Medfield under some usage scenarios.
Silvermont Atom core
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All this should change a year from now, when we are likely to see the first phones shipping with Intel’s upcoming “Merrifield” SOC based on its recently announced Silvermont Atom architecture. The 22nm-fabricated, multicore Silvermont is three times faster and delivers five times the battery life of existing Atoms, as well as twice as fast and 4.3 times more power efficient than quad-core ARM SOCs, says Intel. That latter claim sounds questionable, but even if it’s twice as power-efficient as an S4 Pro or Tegra 4, Silvermont will be a huge leap.
In addition to the 22nm process, performance and battery life are enhanced with Tri-Gate “3D” non-planar transistor technology borrowed from “Ivy Bridge” Core processors. In addition, the SOCs benefit from improved out-of-order execution, enhanced power management, a faster GPU, and better coordination among up to eight cores.
All this should give Intel a short-term advantage over ARM, while helping to position Intel against upcoming 20nm 64-bit ARMv8 processors. These include a Cortex-A57, expected to follow in late 2014 and 2015.
We’ll have our first glimpse of Silvermont by the end of this year with the expected arrival of tablets running quad-core “Bay Trail” SOCs based on Silvermont. These will be followed by Merrifield phone SOCs, and other SOC models aimed at networking, automotive, and server applications. Until then Clover Trail+ offers some incremental improvements that should help Intel get its mojo going for Android, and perhaps future Tizen, mobile devices.