There’s plenty of juicy information pouring out of MWC 2013, and Intel isn’t going to be left out. Sadly Intel has not unveiled a totally new piece of hardware to blow us all away, but it has shed some light on the improvements to its Clover Trail line of mobile processors.
The core architecture of the Clover Trail+ remains the same since the Medfield Atom processors we saw in a few handsets last year. Interestingly though, Intel appears to be aiming the more powerful Clover Trail tablet CPU, which first appeared tablets and laptops around the end of last year, at the smartphone market, and is beefing up its graphics hardware to keep up with competitors.
The choice to name two SoCs Clover Trail and Clover Trail+ isn’t particularly helpful, that is until you look at the specifications.
OK, so let’s delve into the specifics. Clover Trail+ ups the anti by adding a second CPU core to the SoC, whilst keeping hyper threading enabled. The SoC also sports improved GPU performance thanks to some memory controller enhancements and two PowerVR SGX 544 cores.
Clover Trail+ also keeps its 32nm die size from the previous Atom SoCs, so we won’t see a 22nm version until Intel’s next generation chip. Clover Trail+ will come in three different SKUs; the Atom Z2580, Z2560 and Z2520, will be clocked at 2.0Ghz, 1.6Ghz and 1.2Ghz respectively.
Looking more specifically at the CPU; it’s still the same Atom core which appeared a few years ago, but that’s not to say it’s a slouch. Considering its age, the Atom processor still outperforms everything offered by ARM apart from the new Cortex A15. The addition of a second CPU core over the older Medfield design gives the processor a total of four threads, two per core. So it should be competitive with the latest quad-core chips offered by competitors when it comes to multitasking. Frequency wise, nothing has changed; the chip still maxes out at 2.0Ghz, so performance isn’t going to improve over the current Clover Trail tablet chip.
Graphics wise there are some more significant improvements. The new Intel chips offer up an impressive dual core PowerVR SGX 544, with an improved peak clock speed of 533Mhz in the Z2580. You might recall that this is the same core which is going to appear in Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa.
This new GPU trumps the older SGX 540 used in the Medfield design, and doubles the core numbers from last years Clover Trail. The improved GPU stacks up nicely against Apple’s A5X chip and isn’t far behind Qualcomm’s Adreno 320 GPU, which are both some of the best currently available.
Of course it’s always important to consider how the chip will perform in a handset; battery performance, supported screen resolutions, and storage limits are all important factors of SoC design which can often be overlooked if we obsess with CPU clocks and core counts.
Firstly and most importantly to many, battery life. As the processor uses the same architecture as the single core Medfield chip there shouldn’t be drastically any more battery consumption when performing basic tasks. However if the frequencies and voltages of both cores are cranked up to full then your battery will drain a fair bit faster than before, but that’s to be expected with performance improvements.
The same will be true for the GPU, whilst remaining relatively idle there won’t be any more power draw, but when ramping up the speed of the multi-core graphics chip you can expect more severe power usage. Battery consumption is obviously going to depend on how consumers use their device, but you can definitely expect less battery life if you’re constantly gaming for example.
Whilst we’re on the subject of GPU’s, the SGX544 supports higher resolution displays than Medfield, which is good news if you’re looking forward to owning a smartphone with a 1080p display. A maximum resolution of 1920×1200 would also make this SoC ideal for 10″ tablet displays, as well as exporting your screen to a TV or HDMI monitor, a pretty important feature nowadays.
To top off all these improvements, Intel’s latest SoC supports 16 megapixel front and 2 megapixel rear cameras, and 1080p video encoding and decoding. Intel has also upped the maximum internal NAND storage to a huge 256Gb, but it’s highly unlikely that any mobile device will ship with that much storage space included.
Unfortunately there’s still no built in support for 4G LTE networks, so Intel won’t be winning over any manufacturers who are looking for all inclusive top of the line components, especially considering that Qualcomm, and now Nvidia, are offering all in one LTE chip solutions. Intel plans on shipping out it’s first integrated chips with LTE support before the end of the year, but that’s a long time away in the tech market. Fortunately Intel has improved its HSPA+ transceiver and introduced dual-carrier support in the new SoC, so it’s not all bad.
Clover Trail+ surpasses Intel’s previous mobile chip in all areas by quite a margin, but how does it stack up against the industry leaders?
Intel’s latest offering is certainly one of the faster chips in the market at the moment, easily competing with Qualcomm’s S4 Pro for the performance crown. However with Nvidia and Samsung both offering up Cortex A15 powered SoCs and Qualcomm beefing up its Krait architecture even further with the Snapdragon 800, Clover Trail+ might soon be left lagging behind its competitors.
Overall Clover Trail+ looks like a good mobile chip, and is certainly Intel’s best offering to date. But Intel needs to get working on the 22nm implementation of its Atom design if it want to keep up with the potential battery savings offered by newer architectures like big.Little and Tegra. Also, future LTE integration is a must if Intel ever hopes to take on Qualcomm.
Clover Trail+ handsets, like the Lenovo K900, are definitely going to be top of the line, but we’ll have to wait and see how Intel’s aging Atom design fairs against the next generation chips which are just around the corner.