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Analyst: Intel's smartphone chip offers significant power savings vs. ARM

Tests by ABI Research cast doubt on the common assumption that ARM chips offer better power savings than X86 chips designed by Intel

So far, Intel's Clover Trail+ Atom processor has only found a design win or two within Asian smartphones. But if ABI Research's report is accurate, smartphone makers and consumers alike should start clamoring for it.

In tests comparing almost all of the latest smartphone application processors, Intel's Atom Z2580 chip based on the Clover Trail+ architecture delivered comparable performance to the Samsung Exynos Octa and the Qualcomm APQ8064T. But Intel's chip also consumed 60 percent of the current of the Exynos Octa, and less than half (47 percent) of the current of the Qualcomm chip. (The Octa chip is found within European versions of the Samsung Galaxy S4, while the Qualcomm chip is used in the U.S. version.)

ABI Research's report measured the current draw, where current times voltage equals power. But the assumption is that the operating voltages are comparable. In short, Intel's Atom offers the same performance but with a much lower power draw than competing chips, ensuring longer battery life and significantly undercutting the ARM proposition its chips offer much longer battery life than traditional X86 chips. If the ABI report is true, then Intel stands a good chance of cutting into the traditional smartphone market.

In fact, James Mielke, vice president of engineering at ABI, told PCWorld that his firms' tests show that as the ARM providers increased the performance of their chips, the current drain scaled up as well, reducing battery life. This would imply as ARM's licensees scale up the clock speeds of their chips to meet the increasing demands of apps and other phone software, the battery life of those phones could dip as well.

The tests were run "in phones running real applications," Mielke said.

Specifically, Intel's chip drew 0.85A of average current vs. 1.38A for the Samsung Exynos Octa, and 1.79A for the Qualcomm APQ8064T, ABI found.

Intel shocked the world by launching the K800 Android smartphone with Lenovo at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, adding the K900 this year. Intel had struggled to enter the smartphone market for years, even after it had bought its way into the ARM market with the StrongARM chip from DEC about a decade ago. The Clover Trail+ and other Atom chips use the X86 instruction set, meaning that they can run either Windows or ARM.

ABI compared the Clover Trail+ Atom chip to the chips powering the Samsung Nexus 10 (the Samsung Exynos 5250) and Asus Nexus 7 (Nvidia's Tegra 3) tablets, as well as the two Galaxy S4 phones. The one chip that the study excluded was the Nvidia Tegra 4, which has yet to launch, Mielke said.

"Intel did significant work to bring the current drain down on their well-recognized high-performance processors but the competitors did not help themselves, " Mielke said in a statement. "The ARM architecture used by nearly all of Intel's competitors is well known for its low power performance but in bringing the processing power up closer to PC levels, the current drain has taken a significant hit."


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