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Intel Merrifield smartphone review - hands on with 64-bit Atom reference device

Tom Morgan
24 Feb 2014
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We take a look at Intel's latest reference smartphone, which is powered by the newly-announced 64-bit Merrifield processor

Intel formally announced Merrifield, its 64-bit smartphone processor, at its Mobile World Congress press conference this morning, and we've already had the chance to put one through its paces. The company's new reference handset won't be making it into production, but it gives us an early look at what kind of performance we can expect from the chip Intel says is faster than a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 and the A7 CPU found in Apple's iPhone 5s.

Intel Merrifield smartphone

The handset itself is rather unremarkable, with a 4in, 1,280x720p display, fairly chunky screen bezel onscreen buttons rather than hardware ones. It is built mainly from plastic, but has a mirror finish on the back which proved to be a magnet for fingerprints - it's certainly not to our tastes, but almost irrelevant as you won't actually be able to buy one. Hopefully Intel's hardware partners will have more restrained designs when they release their Merrifield products. There's also a camera sensor on the rear paired with an LED flash, but it wasn't clear how many megapixels it had.

Intel Merrifield smartphone

The important thing is performance, and the good news is it's much improved over the outgoing smartphone Atom chips. The Merrifield Atom Z3480 runs both its cores at a maximum frequency of 2.13GHz, which helps make Android 4.4 KitKat feel incredibly responsive. There was none of the lag or stutter we experienced with budget Atom smartphones like the Asus FonePad. It wasn't clear how much RAM the reference handset was equipped with, but Merrifield itself will support up to 4GB of LPDDR memory. With a limited selection of apps installed, we weren't able to directly compare the handset with a Snapdragon 800 smartphone, but first impressions suggest Intel has at the very least come close to matching the raw performance of Qualcomm's chipset.

Intel Merrifield smartphone

Intel is promising improved energy efficiency and longer battery life, as well as "stellar graphics" performance, thanks to the new PowerVR series 6 GPU which should provide twice the power of the previous generation Atom. Although we weren't allowed to install our usual graphics testing apps, including 3DMark, we were able to play a racing game running at 1080p on an external display. With graphics on par with Sony's PlayStation Vita and a silky smooth frame rate, the new silicon certainly seems to be a big improvement when it comes to gaming.

Intel Merrifield smartphone

Merrifield is also the Intel Atom SoC to use the company's new Integrated Sensor Solution, which manages data collected from sensors built into the handset such as the accelerometer to keep applications contextually aware - even when the device is in standby. That should mean fitness apps are always kept up to date when paired with a smartwatch or step tracker using Bluetooth Low Energy. Intel had a fitness tracking app pre-installed, which monitors the number of steps taken using the accelerometer, speed using GPS and what apps you use to breakdown your day between work and play.

So far Intel hasn't confirmed which products will be powered by the Merrifield chipset, but did reveal it had signed a multi-year agreement with Asus across its range of tablets and smartphones. It expected the chips to arrive in handsets towards the summer. If prices stay reasonably low as they did with the previous generation Atom, Merrifield handsets could prove quite the bargain in the later half of 2014.

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