updated 12:35 pm EST, Wed December 21, 2011
Intel shows hopes for Atom phones ahead of CES
Intel in a rare step gave a hands-on test of its Medfield-based Atom phone and tablet reference designs to MIT. The institute's Technology Review in testing the Android 2.3-based phone called it "powerful and pleasing," noting that it could play "Blu-ray-quality" video with wireless TV streaming and could shoot burst photos at up to 15FPS for 10 shots. It was "on a par" with newer Android and iPhone hardware, according to the close look.
Medfield is now known to have optimizations that favor Android, such as apps and web code.
The tablet was using the same processor and, in a seeming first for an Intel tablet, as thin and light as an iPad 2. It was running Android 4.0 and billed as "noticeably nicer" than Android 3.0 tablets, most of which are using older-generation ARM processors.
Still open on either was the question of battery life, a historical weakness for Intel tablets. Intel claims power consumption is lower than for the "top three" even as it outperformed them although it didn't say which these were. Some of the top Android devices have notoriously low battery life through their uses of early LTE chips or inefficient screens.
The move could be key to Intel gaining relevance in the mobile space. After roughly two years of being unable to match promises of Atom chips in mobile devices, Medfield's 32 nanometer manufacturing process will make it more power efficient than some 40nm or 45nm chips released this year and potentially a better pick for those wanting off-the-shelf designs. ARM doesn't need the shrink as quickly and will be on 28nm in 2012, but Intel may leapfrog it again with 22nm in 2013 where ARM may wait until 2014.
Intel still has some obstacles, such as both convincing ARM-wedded phone makers as well as merging the 3G and 4G hardware into the chip. Despite having acquired Infineon, it can't build the cellular hardware into the chip the same way Qualcomm can with its Snapdragon hardware.