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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  • Valantar - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    Hm. Was not expecting that. Then again, that thing looks _huge_ for a smartphone. I suppose that's some sort of ES chip, and that it can be integrated into a smaller (DRAM-stackable) package?
  • MonkeyPaw - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    I'm guessing the chip would not require the packaging, but would instead be soldered on to the system board. The die itself doesn't look too unreasonable.
  • ddriver - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    The chip looks 50% smaller than a thumb nail, possibly a Chinese person's thumb (i.e. possibly rather small). Pretty much in line with smartphone socs.
  • Valantar - Thursday, March 16, 2017 - link

    The chip looks small. The package does not. Hence my speculation whether it might be an ES, and the package just for testing purposes.
  • ddriver - Thursday, March 16, 2017 - link

    The package is a convenience and / or testing thing. You don't need to use that particular package to use the chip.

    But even as it is, IMO the height of the thing is the more detrimental aspect rather than its footprint.
  • ToTTenTranz - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    What high-end chipset is ever going to use a PowerVR GT7200 in 2017? Are they going to clock the GPU at 2GHz?

    Also, why use the old airmont instead of the not-so-new-anymore goldmont architecture? Doesn't this mean they will be limited to LPDDR3 where the high-end devices have been using the 2x faster LPDDR4 for years?

    4K30 HEVC means it's also well behind all the dirt-cheap chipsets supporting 4K60 decoding for netflix and the like, meaning it's not even going to take their place.

    This is looking like SoFia all over again. Way too old components coming up way too late and expecting those to somehow compete in a cut-throat market.
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    This's a china chip, only needs to compete against bottom tier mediateck, rockchip, and all winner designs.
  • ToTTenTranz - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    Well bottom tier would make more sense, but the article clearly states "high-end handhelds":

    "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"
  • Glock24 - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    Well this would've​ made the Zenfone 2 more power efficient, although it was not the CPU or SOC that was a power hog. The modem was the real problem with power efficiency.
  • MrSpadge - Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - link

    Sounds like an interesting chip for tablets and mini PCs, too. Especially if they're not asking for typical Intel prices. Which is quite possible, since they don't have to invest in the fab R&D.

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