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Intel Atom x3 gets built-in modem, turns to ARM for graphics

Chris Finnamore
2 Mar 2015
Intel x3 specifications
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Lower cost and power usage from fully-integrated SoC, which also has ARM Mali graphics

Intel has announced its first mobile system-on-chip (SoC) with an integrated modem: the Intel Atom X3, codenamed SoFIA.

Previous mobile-oriented Intel chips, such as the current Bay Trail range, have to make do with separate wireless modems for use in 3G and 4G tablets, as well as smartphones. Having two chips is both less power-efficient and more expensive, and makes it harder for Intel to compete with companies such as Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon integrated-modem SoCs.

The Atom x3 is Intel's response. There will be three models: the x3-C3130, the x3-C3230RK and the x3-3440. All three processors will be 64-bit compatible, but they differ significantly in terms of specifications. The x3-C3130 is the cheapest model, and is a dual-core chip running at up to 1GHz with a built-in 3G modem. The x3-3230RK also has 3G, but is a quad-core processor and can run at up to 1.2GHz. Finally, the top-of-the-range quad-core x3-3440 can run at up to 1.4GHz and has built-in 4G LTE.

Unusually, as Intel is known for manufacturing its own processors rather than outsourcing the process, the mid-range X3-C3230RK will be physically manufactured by China's Rockchip company. This will, presumably, keep costs down, and coupled with the integrated modem make Intel mobile processors particularly attractive for smartphone and tablet manufacturers.

The new mobile processors are also interesting in that they use Mali graphics instead of Intel HD Graphics. Mali chips are designed by ARM, which is behind the vast majority of mobile processors and is, in terms of design if not manufacturing, Intel's big rival. The cheapest x3-C3130 has Mali 400 MP2 graphics, the x3-3230RK has a Mali 450 MP4 chipset and the most powerful x3-C3440 has Mali T720 graphics.

The Mali 400 is a similar chipset to the one we saw in the Samsung Galaxy S3, so is no great shakes nowadays, and the T720 is described by ARM as a mid-range GPU which is similar to the Mali T628. The T628 chip scores around 13,000 in 3DMark, which means even the top-of-the-range Intel x3 will still be a long way off the market leaders such as the LG G Flex 2, with its 22,000+ score, in terms of 3D graphics power. The fact that Intel is now using ARM-based graphics should hopefully lead to fewer incompatibility problems in 3D games; we had significant problems with Bay Trail chips in games such as Assassin's Creed Pirates.

The high-end 4G x3-C3440 will be the first chip to market, so we're looking forward to seeing how it compares with the competition in normal use, in games and, most importantly, in battery life.

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