Moorestown becomes a reality with unveiling of Intel’s Atom Z6xx smartphone platform

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For those of you who have been following its development, it's been quite a few years since we first heard of Intel's Moorestown platform, targeting the rapidly growing smartphone and mobile device markets and attempting to compete with ARM, whose processor designs are the current dominant leader in the mobile space. Intel has now taken a very big step toward bringing the x86 chip architecture to handheld devices with the official unveiling of Moorestown as the Intel Atom Z6xx platform. Just as noteworthy as the hardware at the launch was the software it's intended to run, with the company specifically highlighting Android and MeeGo.

Being heralded as the second generation Atom following the MID/UMPC-centered Z5xx-series (aka Menlow), the new Atom Z6xx aims to bring a powerful "PC-like" experience to smartphones, tablets, and other handheld devices in a compact and extremely power-efficient design able to compete with incumbent rivals such as the Snapdragon and Cortex-A8. The Moorestown platform is composed of three primary components: the Atom Z6xx CPU formerly codenamed Lincroft, the MP20 platform controller hub (Langwell), and a dedicated MSIC power control module (Briertown).

Much like the recent Pine Trail Atom chips, the Z6xx is a System-on-a-Chip (SoC) design integrating the 45nm Atom CPU with the GMA 600 graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, and display controllers into a single integrated chip, with the addition of hardware HD video decoders (for 1080p playback) and encoders (for 720p recording). Featuring Intel's scaling technologies including "Burst Performance Technology," in high-end smartphones the chip will be capable of reaching 1.5GHz when maximum performance is required, while allegedly running at around 600MHz under normal circumstances to save power. The most powerful version of the Z6xx intended for tablets, and other handheld devices will be able to reach 1.9GHz.

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While everything has looked promising on the performance front, the key questions over Moorestown have always been regarding power consumption and whether Intel could design a processor to match the leading energy efficiency that is ARM's specialty. With the Atom Z6xx, the prospects look very bright with the company claiming a more than 50x reduction in idle power consumption and other significant reductions in audio (20x), video, and browsing (2-3x) scenarios compared to the previous Atom Z5xx-series. This basically means the average power consumption is around 1W, which is about half of Menlow and at a level similar to most current leading smartphones. Reinforcing this, Intel also quoted 10 days of standby time, 2 days of audio playback, and 4-5 hours of web browsing and video playback using a typical 1500mAh, 5.5Wh li-on battery, all the while boasting superior performance across the board compared to the ARM Cortex-A8 and various unidentified handsets.

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Moorestown has always been associated with Moblin and subsequently its successor MeeGo, which were specifically developed to run on the hardware. At the launch event, the company emphasized that the Atom Z6xx is intended to power Android, MeeGo, and Moblin devices, adding that it has worked directly with Google to ensure that there is full support for Android at launch. Remembering Intel is a member of the Open Handset Alliance makes this seem less of a surprise, but it is extremely noteworthy that it places the Z6xx directly against ARM in the established Android space and also means the hardware is independent of relying on the questionable prospects of new competing OSs such as MeeGo.

With the Atom Z6xx available from today to manufacturers and no confirmed customers as of yet, we probably won't see devices using the new hardware until at least the second half of this year at the very earliest. But this is clearly a very interesting development in the smartphone space, and I believe the competition between Intel and ARM will be most intriguing.

With no announcements of manufacturing partners and the recent confirmation that the LG GW990 is not slated for production, it will be interesting to see which companies will adopt the new platform. An all but confirmed candidate is of course Nokia with its alliance with Intel and involvement in the MeeGo OS. Morgan Stanley has reported that the two companies will release a jointly developed smartphone in mid-to-late 2011.

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Specifically regarding the performance and battery life claims, they are certainly impressive but it will be hard to verify anything before actual finalized hardware is available. But on paper and in early demonstrations, the Atom Z6xx does appear to achieve a new benchmark of performance in comparison to current competitors, while at least equaling their energy efficiency. The chip seems to be extremely strong with regard to multitasking, 3D graphics, and video playback/recording with demonstrations including three-way video conferencing, running Quake III, and playing back 1080p video. But it's important to note that ARM and its partners have not been standing still either, with the next-generation Cortex-A9 architecture and its multi-core variants, and Qualcomm planning to release a newer 1.3GHz Snapdragon CPU later this year, followed by a 1.5GHz dual-core version. Even in light of the Atom Z6xx's dramatically reduced power consumption, I still believe ARM-based chips will likely continue to have an edge in this area.

Although Intel has clearly targeted the Atom Z6xx platform at the smartphone market with no mention of Windows, UMPCs, and netbooks, the company was also quick to note that the hardware is intended to scale up to larger mobile devices such as tablets and smartbooks. I think the chip may be a prime candidate for these slightly larger devices with their greater emphasis on performance over energy efficiency. The thought of a new breed of powerful Atom Z6xx packing tablets/MIDs running Android and MeeGo is very exciting. Overall with Moorestown's long awaited debut, I think it's going to be a very interesting time in the smartphone and mobile devices space going forwards. Check out the video below showing an Aava prototype Moorestown smartphone running Android and let the discussion begin in the comments!

[Tech Radar | UMPC Portal]
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Jeremy To

Jeremy is a former editor at Pocketables.

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