Intel unveils smartphone-bound Atom Z34, Z35 series, new LTE modem

The Mobile World Congress kicks off this morning in Barcelona, Spain, and Intel has taken the opportunity to announce a new pair of smartphone-bound Atom systems-on-a-chip—not to mention a new LTE wireless modem.

You might have heard about the Atom Z34- and Z35-series chips under the code names Merrifield and Moorefield, respectively. These are based on the same CPU architecture as Intel's tablet-oriented Bay Trail Atom chips, and they're built on the same 22-nm fab process with tri-gate transistors. Unlike Bay Trail, however, Merrifield and Moorefield feature Power VR Series 6 integrated graphics, and they're designed to power Android phones.

Merrifield and Moorefield will succeed the existing Clover Trail+ platform. This slide from Intel's presentation shows the differences between Merrifield and Clover Trail+:

Compared to its predecessor, Merrifield offers a higher peak clock speed, an architecture with out-of-order execution and 64-bit compatibility, faster integrated graphics processor programmable with the OpenCL and RenderScript APIs, support for LPDDR3 memory, an improved image signal processor, and a brand-new video signal processor that supports hardware VP8 encoding and decoding. Not mentioned in the slide above is an integrated "low power sensor solution" that, according to Intel, allows Merrifield to "deliver contextual information to apps with motion & gesture sensing, audio sensing, location sensing and contextual analyses [without] draining the battery."

Moorefield is very similar to Merrifield, except that it has two more cores, supports for faster memory, and the ability to drive higher-resolution displays. This slide compares the two offerings:

How do Merrifield and Moorefield stack up against the competition? We haven't had the opportunity to run our own benchmarks yet, but Intel quoted some numbers in its presentation. The numbers compared an Atom Z3480 (Merrifield) reference design to an Apple A7-powered iPhone 5S and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-powered Samsung Galaxy S4 in several tests: WebXPRT, MobileXPRT, BatteryXPRT, and GFXBench. The upcoming Atom chip seemed to perform rather well:

In part, Intel credits Merrifield's high Turbo performance for the good battery-life results. "Most things on the web are lightly threaded if not single-threaded," says Matt Dunford, Intel's Worldwide Client Benchmarking Manager. Because Merrifield completes single-threaded tasks quickly, it's able to spend more time in an idle state, which can result in lower overall power consumption. Intel has a name for this blend of speed and power-efficiency: HUGI, short for "hurry up and get idle."

Merrifield (and Moorefield) could perform even better in future, 64-bit apps. In a handful of pre-release 64-bit tests, Intel claims that Merrifield saw a 14-34% performance boost from the switch to 64 bits. However, Dunford pointed out that, while Android 4.4 KitKat already has a 64-bit kernel, user-space applications have yet to be ported. Fully 64-bit Android devices aren't a thing just yet.

Now, Merrifield probably won't compete solely against existing chips. Other next-gen SoCs should come out this year, some perhaps even later this week at the Mobile World Congress. Those offerings could perform a fair bit better than the Snapdragon 800 and Apple A7, both of which came out in 2013. For the record, Intel expects the first devices based on the Atom Z34 and Z35 series debut in the second quarter of this year.

Accompanying the new Atoms will be the XMM 7260, a new LTE modem that enables transfer speeds of up to 300 Mbps thanks to carrier aggregation. The XMM 7260 supports FDD and TDD wireless standards as well as 3G (WCDMA and HSPA+), Chinese 3G (TD-SCDMA and TD-HSPA), and EDGE. A single model will be able to tap into as many as 22 bands. For that reason, Intel says the XMM 7260 will allow device manufacturers to build a single phone that can work worldwide. The XMM 7260 is currently being certified by tier-one operators, the chipmaker says.

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