Intel's march into the ultra mobile space has been a frustrating one. Architecturally Intel has the chops to play in the market, but its execution has been met with challenges. At first Intel seemed to bet too heavily on non-Android OSes (primarily Windows tablets) and now its challenge seems to be more an issue of getting its designs into the market quickly and ultimately used by OEMs. The Android tablet space in particular is in a race to the bottom, leaving little room for another premium SoC vendor outside of Qualcomm. Intel recently announced a new family of lower cost, entry-level Bay Trail SoCs to help adjust to the changing market, but today it announced an even more aggressive play: a strategic partnership with Rockchip.

Rockchip is one of a handful of fabless semiconductor manufacturers based in China, presently specializing in the development of ARM based mobile SoCs. Under today's announcement however, Intel will be leveraging Rockchip to bring a low cost (entry/value) Intel branded SoC platform for tablets (read: sub-$150 Android tablets with connectivity). 

Intel first started talking to Rockchip about this agreement a "couple quarters" ago. There are two primary motivations behind the agreement: it gives Intel additional resources to bring products to the market, and it allows Intel to scale IA based Android tablets pretty quickly.

By the middle of 2015 Intel and Rockchip will launch a new SoFIA SoC, featuring four Intel Atom cores and an Intel 3G modem. From the text of the announcement, it sounds like Intel will be providing the IP for the SoC while Rockchip will handle the integration of the design itself:

“We are always looking for innovative ways to differentiate our product portfolio, and the first-of-its-kind collaboration with Intel helps us do this,” said Min Li, Rockchip CEO. “The combination of Intel’s leading architecture and modem technology with our leading mobile design capability brings greater choice to the growing global market for mobile devices in the entry and value segments.”

The original SoFIA roadmap had a dual-core part with integrated 3G shipping in late 2014 as well as a quad-core with LTE by the middle of 2015. For the China market, a dual-core value SoC wasn't going to fly so Intel needed to fill the hole in its roadmap with a quad-core 3G solution. A quad-core 3G part would be offered at a lower price point than the quad-core LTE option, leaving a hole in Intel's roadmap in a very price sensitive market. By partnering with Rockchip, Intel leverages some of Rockchip's design teams to bring the part to market without Intel incurring additional burden for what I can only assume will be a fairly low margin SoC. Rockchip was in around 40 million tablets last year, so this gives Intel access to a reasonable TAM as well. 

In return, Rockchip becomes the first company to be able to more or less license Intel x86 CPU IP for use in this combined, Intel-branded SoC. The low-cost ARM based SoC market is crowded and it's tough to differentiate when all of your competitors have access to the same ARM CPU IP. In this case, Rockchip gets access to Silvermont which it may be able to use to set itself apart from the competition. There's obviously a tradeoff in shipping x86 into the Android space, but if Rockchip can help Intel get its numbers up the x86 problem could reduce over time. 

Although the SoC would use the Intel brand there may be some reference to Rockchip, perhaps in the model number.

Intel wouldn't go into specifics on how the arrangement works, other than to say that Intel would work with Rockchip to do the SoC integration and Rockchip will bring its own IP to the table as well. Intel gave the example of Rockchip bringing 3rd party graphics IP to the SoC. Rockchip's existing products use ARM and Vivante GPU cores, so we may end up seeing an SoC that uses Intel x86 cores with Mali graphics.

If I'm reading this correctly it marks a big shift in Intel's approach to the mobile SoC market (and chip making in general). Intel claims the resulting SoC will be very price competitive. Leveraging Rockchip for integration likely means a substantially lower cost structure than traditional Intel SoCs. The design will continue to be fabbed at TSMC. 

Each company will focus on selling the Intel-branded part to its own customers. Intel isn't disclosing how the profit sharing/revenue reporting will work. The agreement doesn't prevent Rockchip from continuing to sell ARM based SoCs and there's no financial investment from Intel in Rockchip. 

Although there's only one product being talked about today (this quad-core Silvermont with integrated 3G), Intel stressed that the deal is strategic - implying that we should see more engagement over time. If this initial quad-core design works well, I can see Intel shifting more of its mobile SoC design integration over to Rockchip. More than anything this is a sign that Intel is willing to try something new/different, and that's absolutely what the company needs.

Source: Intel

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  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    Even if you just consider ARM-designed cores, Silvermont does not come close to eg. Cortex-A7 perf/Watt, especially on the same process.
  • MarcusMo - Friday, May 30, 2014 - link

    Oo-architectures such as Silvermont will always lag behind in-order architectures such as the A7 in perf/watt simply because of all the additional circuitry that needs to be on-chip. Thus the comparison with any in-order core is flawed. They have a different optimization point.
  • Wilco1 - Saturday, May 31, 2014 - link

    Exactly, which is why it is so ridiculous to claim Silvermont has best perf/Watt of all ARM cores. There are many ARM CPUs out there optimized for different uses, so one generic CPU can never beat more specialized ones in every aspect.

    Note this is not a flawed comparison as A7 is actually fast enough for most tasks in a phone/tablet (many ship with a dual or quad A7). With big.LITTLE you can switch to an even faster OoO core when you do need more performance without reducing the overall power efficiency.
  • Krysto - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    OEMs considering buying Atom chips for their mobile devices, should consider the fact that Intel is only HEAVILY subsidizing them right now to the point of losing $1 billion dollars every quarter, and they'll throw them under the bus as soon as they get decent market share.
  • mrdude - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    Asus is an example of the above. Intel subsidized Merrifield last year when Asus was entering the smartphone market, but this year Asus has backtracked and pulled the Intel models in favor of Qualcomm due to the pricing and integrated modem.

    I'm not sure adding a middle party between Intel's IP/designs to the end consumer is going to make it more competitive or ensure any sort of significant design wins. To me this seems like Intel is admitting two significant problems with their mobile approach -- 1) Intel's too damn expensive, and 2) They're too slow. I'm not sure how binding themselves to Rockchip at the low end is going to cure either of these ailments.
  • Impulses - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    It's all about gaining market share in the short term I imagine...
  • darkich - Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - link

    That's the sole point here.
    Intel are dumping the market at all costs..that's the only way they can "compete "
  • name99 - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    "More than anything this is a sign that Intel is willing to try something new/different, and that's absolutely what the company needs."

    Except that it does nothing to solve Intel's fundamental problem.
    The problem is that Intel wants to sell chips at $100 to $3000 --- its entire operation is set up around that assumption. All this does is allow them to sell some chips at $1 to $10.

    The problem longterm remains --- how do they sell Atoms that are competitive enough with ARM, but not so competitive that they steal the desktop business? This hasn't been an obvious problem yet, while ARM was taking its sweet time getting to 64 bit and a standard server platform, but all that changes starting this year.
    This does nothing to help the situation; if anything it makes it worse, because the more x86 is visible (with a non-Windows infrastructure et al) in non-desktop environments, the more it becomes just one CPU --- and the more it becomes an eminently reasonable assumption for desktop users that they buy a non-x86 laptop. (Chromebooks today, and not very interesting. But 64-bit ARM Android laptops in two years... Or maybe someone puts together a laptop or AIO based on WinRT just to see how it flies.

    Intel may think it can compete on performance, and continue to charge its traditional prices for that --- good luck. The story of a dozen RISC companies is that, yes there are a few people who will pay 3x as much for 20% faster, but not enough to sustain a market.
  • easp - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    I think you misunderstand the larger context. Cannibalization of their desktop and server business is an issue, sure, but the larger issue is that their desktop and server business would be plateauing whether or not ARM was an issue, and that in order to keep if from collapsing completely, they still have to invest in new process technology. The thing is, each generation yields more and more transistors that they have to sell in order to amortize their investment. They can't sell them in their traditional market, because it is mature, so they can't sell more chips, and their isn't much point in selling bigger chips, because of diminishing returns.

    So, the only way they have any chips they can sell for $100-3000, is to find ways to keep their fabs utilized.
  • name99 - Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - link

    I understand the point just fine. This is the mess Intel got itself into in the first place by insisting that its mobile strategy was to make EXACT replicas of x86. Now they have to pay the x86 design fee costs for each CPU, and they are cannibalizing themselves.

    What they SHOULD have done is launch the mobile chips using a completely new ISA (ideally one designed by someone who has never set foot on Intel because if there is one thing Intel sucks at, it is ISA design). This would have prevented all the cannibalization issues and allowed them to run at the speed of ARM, without being slowed down by x86 legacy.

    A second best alternative would have been to launch Atom as purely the clean x86-64 subset of x86, ditching everything else from MMX and x87 to SMM and 32 bit mode. This would have made the design surface a lot smaller and cleaner (not as nice as ARM, but still a lot less painful) and would have avoided the problems of cannibalization for at least a few years.

    The point is, having made this huge blunder five or so years ago, dicking around with these sorts of deals today is not going to solve the problem. When you're in a hole, stop digging! At the very least they should be working on moving to the second strategy I suggest RIGHT NOW. Put everyone using Atoms on notice that, unlike with legacy x86, they're going to be ripping out all the crud very soon --- and if that means Atoms can't run legacy Windows, well, we have this nice i7 we could sell you instead...

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