Home > Reviews > Pre-CES 2013 Crystal Ball – Intel’s Atom might win the ARMs race

Pre-CES 2013 Crystal Ball – Intel’s Atom might win the ARMs race

During our short time with the Atom Medfield powered Motorola RAZR i, which surprised us in many areas, we had an epiphany – What if Intel added moar cores and a better GPU engine into their upcoming torpedo (Clovertrail+) aimed at the ARM dominance in smartphones?

There is no denying that ARM has enjoyed considerable success in the smartphone arena, with virtual dominance in the Android market by CPU makers like Samsung, Qualcomm and Nvidia reaping the rewards as seen in their recent financial reports, not forgetting too that Apple uses its own custom ARM SOCs in their wildly popular mobile devices. In contrast, traditional x86 CPU giants like Intel and AMD are facing a sluggish desktop market, with the latter shedding heaps of vital personnel (read: engineers) and even going ARM in a last ditch effort to stay afloat and keep the Mubadalas happy.


Of course, Intel is a behemoth filled with boatloads of cash and very talented engineers, and the world's largest semiconductor firm isn't going to disappear anytime soon. Four seasons ago (or one year if you live in Singapore), they introduced the Atom Medfield smartphone platform, based on its own mature 32nm HKMG process and a custom x86 version of Android (currently 4.0.4 ICS only) with ARM binary translation for application compatibility. The actual rollout was delayed until the middle of this year and Intel got vendors like Lenovo, ZTE and Motorola in addition to a host of smaller brands to sign up for their first assault into the smartphone market.


Motorola Mobility's (recently acquired by Google) RAZR i, shares many similarities to their regular TI OMAP ARM powered Droid RAZR M with its use of a 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass covered Super AMOLED pentile display and the iconic DuPoint kevlar backplate. The first impression that you'll get when picking up the candy bar shaped phone is how comfortable it grips in your hand, and it is also lighter (126g) compared to the usual Nexus 4 (139g) and iPhone 4S (140g). There is some thoughtful industrial design experience going into the placement of the power, volume rocker and camera shutter buttons, all located on the right side.

On the left side which has the micro USB port, we find the micro SIM / SD slots cleverly tucked under a rubber cover for easy access without needing to turn the phone off for replacement. A non-removable 2000mAH battery takes care of the single core, dual (hyper)threaded 2 GHz Atom Z2460, with formal reviews from sites like The Verge reporting a respectable 72 hours of regular use on a single charge, far longer than most of its ARM competitors. Admittingly the RAZR i doesn't have LTE (HSPDA+ from an Intel radio), which plays a big part in its long battery life. Just imagine if Motorola were to come out with a MAXX version of the phone – finally we can go through a whole week while on a desert island with no charging points!


The rest of the phone is what you'd expect from any typical Android offering – Phone, Loudspeaker, WIFI, Bluetooth, Camera, A-GPS and a lightly skinned interface with unrestricted access to a rich application ecosystem (*cough RT*). Here are some of the performance figures from popular benchmarks:


Passmark CPU Tests 4824
Passmark Disk Tests 4425
Passmark Memory Tests 3745
Passmark 2D Graphics Tests 2491
Passmark 3D Graphics Tests 646


Futuremark Peacekeeper HTML5 Benchmark 725 marks


Sunspider 0.91 Javascript Benchmark 1050.9ms


Amdahl's law states that a small portion of the program which cannot be parallelized will limit the overall speed-up available from parallelization.

To put the performance figures in perspective, the single-core synthetic CPU numbers are about half of the top performing quad core ARM SOCs found in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3 (Exynos 4) and LG Optimus G (Snapdragon S4 Pro). The LPDDR2 memory controller performance absolutely blitzes the competition by a factor of 3 to 4 and the graphics (400 MHz PowerVR SGX540) is not too bad for an aging 5-year old design. All these translates into a silky smooth web browsing experience, where absolute single threaded performance (hence the Amdahl's law reference) is more important especially in JavaScript heavy sites like VR-Zone.com. Even with only 1GB of RAM, I'm also happy to report that regular applications load and switch in an instant (including Facebook and WhatsApp), and that the overall Android experience doesn't get diminished by an aggressive low memory killer.



With its performance leadership in desktop and server frontiers locked up for years to come, it is only logical that Chipzilla will pump in more R&D and marketing into the still-exploding smartphone and tablet arena. So what happens when Intel doubles the number of cores while maintaining the same IPC and puts in a more effective GPU with its own LTE baseband, augmented by manufacturing process improvements and power management tweaks, into their next Atom (codenamed Clover Trail+)? Lets hope we'll see some of them at CES next month…

Lennard Seah
Why can't I have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads

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