Meet Intel's SoFIA, the super-cheap smartphone chip created in Singapore

The company is trying to bring the cost of smartphones down to as little as $50.

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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrating a SoFIA-based phone at IDF Shenzhen 2014. Intel

SINGAPORE -- Poke around an industrial suburb here and you might stumble across a building whose signage tells you it belongs to a German company named Infineon. But back in 2011, Intel purchased the wireless portion of this business and renamed it Intel Mobile Communications.

Outside, the place retains the Infineon branding, as the other parts of the company still exist, but depending on the floor you visit, it's definitely Intel inside. This Singapore office is the home of SoFIA -- short for "Smart or Feature phone with Intel Architecture" -- a technology that holds the key to Intel's future as a force in the mobile world.

What is SoFIA?

Announced last December, SoFIA is a new mobile chip that's set to debut at the end of this year. Designed for budget smartphones, SoFIA is set to give Qualcomm and Mediatek a run for their money in this rapidly growing part of the market.

Intel has packed a dual-core Atom Silvermont processor into a 28nm system-on-chip (SoC) design that also crams in a 3G modem. An LTE 4G quad-core version will appear at a later stage. Intel declined to reveal more about performance at this point, saying only it expects it to be on par with current offerings from its competitors.

"Dual-core" should mean basic smartphone functionality and a reasonable user experience, but Intel is surprisingly bullish on how much a phone powered by SoFIA will cost. A spokesperson told CNET that "Intel's SoFIA could pave the way for smartphones costing as little as $50 in Indonesia and other emerging markets."

Intel is apparently still in discussion with its phone-making customers and declined to reveal any names. We do know that earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, Intel announced agreements with Lenovo, Dell, and Foxconn, while Asus is already churning out Intel-powered phones and tablets. It's no great leap to guess where we can expect the first SoFIA-powered handsets to come from.

SoFIA's beginnings

While the idea originated at Intel, it was the former Infineon team in Singapore that got the ball rolling.

"We had a virtual boot camp for close to three weeks. Every day and night, mostly midnight for me," says Loh Thiam Wah, head of the platform engineering group at Intel's wireless research and development division.

"As the lead driving this, I have to make sure I contribute my part. We have colleagues all over the world, from East and West Coast US, as well as Germany."

The final concept of SoFIA, however, was solidified away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore's city, at a small beach resort. Loh said the location was "free of distractions" for the team as they worked on nailing down the design.

The end result was the foundation of the new SoC, and a plan for Intel's renewed assault on the mobile market.

Why SoFIA?

"As you know, the growth of the mobile space, a significant portion of it is in the entry space. The first phone that a user actually buys [now] is a smartphone. In this segment, an integrated solution is what the market is looking for," says Loh.

Integration is key to SoFIA, Intel says, specifically to reduce costs. SoFIA integrates the 3G modem and the processor, although other wireless features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi would be on other chips. This means phone makers can choose which parts to include or exclude to match their budget.

Integrating everything into a single chip is possible, but one reason this wasn't done is time. "The RF technology actually has a longer lead time to integrate. If you try to integrate everything, your time to market will be challenging," says Loh.

Instead of taking the "super smartphones" approach, which Loh calls a "beauty contest" where the most powerful phone wins, Intel's philosophy is that SoFIA should be "good enough to fulfil the user experience."

"In this segment, the performance is tied to the user's need and you're not going to see 4K 5-inch displays," he added.

What SoFIA means for Intel

Interestingly, SoFIA isn't made at the company's own foundries. Instead, Intel will have Taiwanese foundry TSMC making the initial wafers to "speed time to market." The company has plans to bring manufacturing back in-house in the future.

Furthermore, there are plans to transition to a 14nm design next year. This will give it a lead over the competition when it does, especially in power efficiency. Rival Qualcomm's plans for a similarly sized 14nm chip have not been confirmed -- though rumors persist of the company's plan to engage Samsung for trial runs. Given the timelines, it's very possible Qualcomm will have 14nm chips in 2015 as well.

In the meantime, Qualcomm will have the lead with its upcoming 20nm chips, but these are meant for higher-end devices than SoFIA's target segment. While the average consumer won't much care, the effects trickle down in the form of more performance, even at a low price.

Intel still has plenty to do to catch up. The company is far behind its competition, according to IDC data, with less than 1 percent of smartphones sold in the first quarter of 2014 running Intel chips. SoFIA, when it's finally available, won't be a game changer overnight.

"It's not even about giving Intel an edge; it's about just keeping them in the ballgame in the first place," said IDC analyst Bryan Ma. "They still need some time before moving SoFIA to 4G, and in the meantime, competitors like Qualcomm and MediaTek are still expected to drive the bulk of the smartphone market.

"In my opinion SoFIA is a necessary move for Intel, and in fact is encouraging evidence of the 'new' Intel way of thinking: being much more flexible (and in turn, faster) rather than insisting on having everything done completely on Intel technology," Ma added.

The future of Intel in Asia

Intel isn't just looking to its Singapore lab for new ideas. According to an Intel spokesperson, the company's factory in the nearby Malaysian city of Penang is the birthplace of many of the smartphone and tablet reference prototypes it's working on.

Whether or not Intel's bet on SoFIA pays off, it shows the company is looking to Asia for more than just hardware partnerships. Given Intel's reputation as the behemoth of the semiconductor business, even current heavyweights of the mobile industry will be smart to have a plan in place for when SoFIA makes its presence felt.

About the author

Aloysius Low is a Senior Writer at CNET Asia and covers all things mobile. A former World of Warcraft addict, he now dabbles in social media to stave off the withdrawal symptoms. As a lover of all things furry, he's also the unfortunate slave/minion of two adorable cats.

 

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