Atom SoCs heading to cheaper smartphones, faster tablets

Intel talked about more than ultrabooks at its CES press conference today. The firm also unveiled a new wrinkle in its smartphone strategy: a budget platform for low-cost handsets and emerging markets. Codenamed Lexington, this platform employs a single-core Atom Z2420 processor with a 1.2GHz clock speed and Hyper-Threading support. The Z2420 appears to be a lower-clocked version of the Z2460 chip in Medfield-based handsets like the Motorola Razr i. That CPU runs at up to 2.0GHz, so it should be quite a bit faster than the budget chip. Despite the slower clock speed, Intel says the new Atom still offers snappy performance in Android applications.

Like its predecessor, the Atom Z2420 features integrated graphics courtesy of Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX 540. The SoC supports hardware acceleration for 1080p video decoding and encoding at frame rates up to 30 FPS. It also sports an image processor compatible with cameras up to five megapixels, which should be sufficient for the class of devices Intel is targeting.

Speaking of devices, Intel showed a Lexington reference design that pairs the Z2420 with its own XMM6265 HSPA+ modem. The handset runs Android and features a 3.5" screen with a relatively low 430x320 display resolution. Yes, this is definitely a budget platform. The reference design does have some interesting features, including WiDi support, a microSD slot, an FM radio, and dual SIM slots. Acer, Lava, and Safaricom have already pledged to offer smartphones based on the Atom Z2420, though it's unclear how closely they're sticking to the reference design.

Given the focus on emerging markets, it seems doubtful Lexington-based smartphones will be popular stateside. However, Intel did drop a few details on some other Atom SoCs. Later this year, high-end smartphones will get a boost from the Atom Z2580, a.k.a. Clover Trail+. This dual-core chip is similar to what's found in Clover Trail tablets and promises up to double the performance of Intel's fastest Medfield SoC without compromising battery life.

Clover Trail+ is still built on 32-nm tech, but 22-nm Atom processors are due to hit tablets in time for the 2013 holiday season. These Bay Trail SoCs will feature four cores and more than double the performance of existing Atom designs, Intel says. It's unclear how much of that performance advantage comes from the extra cores and how much is due to their new microarchitecture. The new chips will support both Windows 8 and Android, though.

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