Intel talks new chips, partners at Mobile World Congress

The chip giant said its Clover Trail+ chip has double the performance and triple the graphics capabilities of its predecessor. And it reveals Asus to be a new customer for a couple of its mobile chips.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini and Orange executive Yves Maitre talking about their new alliance at last year's Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. Roger Cheng/CNET
A year ago, Intel's CEO took the stage at Mobile World Congress to tout new partnerships and talk up the benefits of Intel's mobile chips.

At that time, the Santa Clara, Calif., semiconductor maker's presence in the smartphone market was essentially nonexistent. Today, Intel has 10 phones shipping in 20 countries (though not the U.S.), and it keeps improving its power consumption and performance.

While that's good progress, Intel still has a long way to go, as the company readily admits. It hopes the new chips it's officially launching today at MWC 2013 will aid its push. If raw performance is any guide, the processors have a pretty good shot.

First up is Clover Trail+, Intel's first dual-core chip for smartphones. The Atom processor provides double the computing performance and triple the graphics capabilities of its predecessor, Medfield. And that performance boost comes at the same level of power consumption as Intel's prior offering.

"They're really making significant inroads in mobile processors," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said. "This new Clover Trail is probably the first real step toward Intel becoming a significant player in the smartphone arena."

Energy consumption has long been Intel's biggest issue. Its chips generally have been more power-hungry than those created using the popular ARM Holdings architecture, which has limited Intel's traction in smartphones and tablets. However, Intel has made big strides in making more efficient chips, and it has said it believes its chips are on par with those based on ARM.

Intel noted that Clover Trail+ comes in three variations: 2.0 gigahertz, 1.6GHz, and 1.2GHz. The processors come with an Intel graphics media accelerator engine with a graphics core supporting up to 533MHz with boost mode.

Already, Lenovo has announced a Clover Trail+ powered device, the K900, and other partners, like Asus, are expected to unveil products soon.

Clover Trail+ likely will be a short-lived chip, though, as it's manufactured at 32 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, and uses an older architecture. Intel has said its Atom line would transition to 22 nanometers and a new architecture later this year.

That's where Intel's next chip discussed today, Merrifield, comes in. The company didn't give many details about the 22-nanometer processor beyond saying it "will help enable increased smartphone performance, power efficiency, and battery life."

The Lenovo K900 uses Intel's Clover Trail+ chip. Lenovo
Intel did have more to say about its 22-nanometer chip geared at tablets. The processor, dubbed Bay Trail, is Intel's first quad-core Atom chip, and it doubles the performance of the company's current-generation tablet chip. Bay Trail should be available in time for this year's holiday season.

Intel today also announced a couple new partners for its processor geared at low-end smartphones in emerging markets. Asus plans to unveil a new Android tablet based on the chip, dubbed Lexington, at MWC, and Etisalat Misr of Egypt is making a smartphone using the processor.

Intel didn't say much about the Asus device, but a person familiar with the matter told CNET that the product will be the 7-inch tablet with phone capabilities that has been talked about in the press in recent days.

Even with Intel's recent announcements, the company still lags rivals like Qualcomm. Clover Trail+ is only dual-core while other processors on the market have four cores (though Intel would argue its performance is better even with fewer cores). And Intel doesn't yet offer a chip that integrates the application processor with wireless capabilities like 4G LTE. That limits the company's reach in the broader mobile phone market, as integrated chips generally are cheaper than buying the processors separately.

Intel also doesn't offer a multimode LTE processor, which allows phones to access older networks in locations where 4G isn't available. The company today said that will change in coming months as Intel starts shipping its multimode processor. The chip, dubbed the XMM 7160, supports LTE, DC-HSPA+ and EDGE.

 

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