Last year Intel decided to cease development of its smartphone SoCs and focus instead on microprocessors for other devices, as well as LTE, 5G modems, as well as various IoT solutions. While we weren't expecting a new x86 SoC in the space, Intel did not specify that would be the case: the agreements with third-party SoC developers such as Spreadtrum and Rockchip were still in place. Despite this, we were surprised to hear that At MWC 2017, Intel’s partner Spreadtrum introduced a brand new application processor for high-end handsets, featuring Intel’s 2015 Airmont cores (as seen in Cherry Trail) and made using Intel’s 14 nm process technology.

The Spreadtrum SC9861G-IA SoC features eight Intel’s Airmont cores with running at up to 2 GHz, with Imagination Technology's PowerVR GT7200 GPU. Also integrated is Spreadtrum's own 5-mode LTE Cat 7 modem (up to 300 Mbps download, up to 100 Mbps upload). The SoC also integrates an ISP that supports up to two 13 MP camera sensors, a dedicated sensor hub, and hardware-based decoders/encoders for HEVC and other popular video codecs that support up to 3840×2160 resolution. The display controller can handle resolutions up to 2560×1600.

Spreadtrum's 8-Core Airmont SoC
CPU Cores 8 × Intel Airmont at up to 2 GHz
GPU PowerVR GT7200
Imaging Capabilities Up to 26 MP,
up to two 13 MP sensors
Video 4Kp30, HEVC
Display Controller 2560 × 1440
LTE Category 7
(DL: 300Mbps, UL: 100Mbps)
Process Technology 14 nm

To date, the Spreadtrum SC9861G-IA is the most powerful (and presumably energy-efficient) x86-based SoCfor smartphones. It has more cores, better graphics, and a faster modem than Intel’s own code-named Moorefield SoCs introduced in 2014, made using its 22 nm fabrication process, or the SoFIA chips (designed by Rockchip) launched in 2015 made using TSMC’s 28 nm technologies. Using Intel’s 14 nm manufacturing technology for this new SoC helps to reduce minimum power requirements and die size (which still remain unknown).

The SC9861G-IA is the first x86-based SoC by Spreadtrum, and the development was enabled by an agreement signed in late 2014 after Intel acquired a $1.5-billion worth stake in Tsinghua Unigroup, the owner of Spreadtrum. The chip will not carry the Intel Atom brand, and thus Intel will not help makers of devices to integrate it or make any other incentives to popularize the platform. It will also not invest in its advertising. What is interesting is that the SC9861G-IA will not be Spreadtrum’s last x86-based SoC, according to the CEO of Intel.

“We look forward to working with Spreadtrum on additional mobile platforms,” said Brian Krzanich.

Neither company elaborated on the future plans, and we do not know whether Spreadtrum will continue to introduce smartphone SoCs featuring Intel’s low-power cores, or if they will launch something for higher-end tablets as well.

Intel and Spreadtrum did not disclose when they expect the first devices based on the SC9861G-IA to show up, but only noted that the platform can address both mainstream and high-end handsets.

Source: Spreadtrum

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  • Ariknowsbest - Friday, March 17, 2017 - link

    Think the biggest problem with Atom is the lack of RAM and storage, that messed up Win 8.1 on my HP Stream 7 . But I only paid 30 € including 24 % vat, so for that money its good enough.
  • ddriver - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    "Spreadtrum" - now that's an awful name for a brand. Sounds like spread rectum. Seriously!
  • jordanclock - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    So it's a suped-up Moorefield? Double the cores and upgraded GPU (at least, generationally an upgrade. I have no idea how a PowerVR GT7200 compares to a the iGPU of Moorefield SoC). Oh, and one a newer process node. Those all sound like good upgrades, but it's still a three year old architecture that wasn't exactly a game changer when it came out.

    I guess being x86 gives it a bit of a selling point, but I'm pretty sure if this were a truly viable path, Intel wouldn't have dropped out of the smartphone SoC space.
  • name99 - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    The real issue is what, EXACTLY, Spreadtrum gets from Intel. Do they get masks or something so level it's useless for understanding, or high level designs + simulation code so that they can tweak the design as they wish?

    The point is, without knowing what's being sold, one can't adequately judge the deal. IF high level design is being transferred, the Chinese govt (which is basically the power behind Tsinghua Unigroup) may consider how many chips get sold to be irrelevant and unimportant; what's really being bought is a pool of technology to kick China's home-grown CPU design skills up a notch.

    I'm not commenting on whether that's good or bad (for China, for the US, for Intel, for the world). Just pointing out that the visible part of this deal may be practically irrelevant to the real content of the deal.
  • ddriver - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    I get it, the US is trying to sabotage the already pretty successful Chinese chip design by allowing intel to give them the lousy atom arc, hopefully luring them into adopting that and scrapping their own design.
  • name99 - Thursday, March 16, 2017 - link

    I think you're missing my point. The issue is not that China is buying a lousy Atom core, we all agree on that. The issue is that are they ALSO buying the simulation programs, the testing suites, and the design infrastructure that can be used (by those skilled in the art) to design much better CPUs?

    That sort of infrastructure is not sexy, but it takes an immense amount of time and man-hours to build; so if you can buy it rather than build it you would do well to do so...
  • ddriver - Thursday, March 16, 2017 - link

    Writing a digital logic simulator is easier than writing a basic 2d game, and I mean it.

    Logic to process is a little more complex, however, such software sells freely in the western world, and it would be trivial for the Chinese to acquire, crack and run in.

    Process software for 14 nm finfet is not really considered a trading secret, that is now pretty much in the public domain.

    Furthermore, even without external help or piracy, the Chinese won't take long to get in the game. This is not the China from 10 years ago. China has long exceeded the scientific output of countries like S. Korea and Japan, and is far ahead of Taiwan - all those big chip designers and makers. The Chinese aren't dumb, they can certainly do it on their own, and they pour an immense amount of resources into achieving independence, competitiveness and ultimately even domination in the semiconductor business.

    And intel is aware of that, thus they do what would at least win them some money and market rather than giving them Chinese the cold shoulder, which wouldn't hurt them more than it would hurt intel to miss on that deal.
  • lmcd - Thursday, March 16, 2017 - link

    We don't agree at all. Intel's Atom cores are excellent ever since Silvermont.
  • ddriver - Friday, March 17, 2017 - link

    Yeah, they excel at being mediocre and sucky :)
  • fanofanand - Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - link

    @ddriver - I got a chuckle out of that one, thank you :)

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