Snapdragon Killer? Intel’s Atom Z6 CPUs to Target Smart Phones, Tablets

Today, Intel took the wraps off of its long-awaited Moorestown mobile processor and chipset, effectively positioning itself as a serious player in the smart phone processor space, alongside Qualcomm, Marvell, and others. Now officially called the Atom Z6xx series, the processors are much more than a successor to the popular Atom Z5xx Series of mobile CPUs (aka Menlow) that we’ve seen appearing in tablets, MIDs, and a handful of netbooks over the past couple of years. Combining previously unheard-of performance with huge power savings over its predecessor, the new mobile platform is available to manufacturers today, with devices likely to ship in the second half of the year.

Faster Phones, Tablets

Intel has always dominated the desktop and laptop space, but up until now, it hasn’t had a place in the smart phone race. Over the past couple of years, the Atom N Series CPUs has allowed Intel to dominate the netbook market and its Z5xx series focused on tablets and MIDs. Meanwhile,  handset makers like HTC, Motorola, and LG turned to companies like Qualcomm, with its 1-GHz Snapdragon CPU, or ARM with its popular Cortex-A8 Processor to power their phones. Apple even went so far as to design its own CPU, the A4, for use in the iPad.

With the Atom Z6xx series, Intel is hoping to dominate the handset market like it has the desktop market. Sure, the chip-maker is late to the game, but it promises to outperform all of its competitors, powering phones that can perform graphically-intensive tasks like playing first-person shooters or streaming full 1080p video.

No Windows Support (at least at first)

Though the Atom Z6xx Series uses standard Intel Architecture, Intel has chosen to support Google Android and its own Moblin/Meego Linux, but not Microsoft Windows. Intel declined to answer any of our questions about Windows so it remains unclear whether Intel plans to add Windows support in the future and whether the Z6xx series will work on Windows, even without the company’s blessing.

The lack of Windows support means that MID and Tablet manufacturers who want to make Windows 7 systems are stuck with the less-powerful, less energy efficient Atom Z5xx (aka Menlow)  CPUs.  Every system we’ve reviewed with the older Atom Z5xx series CPU has been an unqualified disappointment, with weak performance and hot temperatures so its disappointing to hear that there’s no alternative on the way for otherwise promising systems like the Viliv S10 and Sony P Series. Perhaps the latest versions of the Z5xx series will offer more punch for MIDs.


In a briefing conducted last month at Intel’s Austin design lab, we had the chance to  see a demo phone made by Aava that was running a 1.5-GHz Atom Z6xx series CPU and Intel’s Moblin OS.  While we watched, the phone was able to achieve very playable framerates in Quake (15 to 25 fps with detail on high and as high as 100 fps on low detail) and toperform complex graphical tasks like rendering 3D shapes or sorting hundreds of images by color in under a second. A demo of some of these capabilities is shown below:

[flq:e02570eb15a645e88ac65dc74d4844cc]

With that kind of speed comes a world of possibilities, a world yet to be exploited under either of the supported operating systems. Imagine playing your favorite MMO, perhaps World of Warcraft, right on your phone from anywhere. Or just imagine a phone that has an HDMI port and can output and play HD videos on your home theater system. With Moorestown, it’s possible.

There’s also a world of possibilities for tablets. We got to spend just a moment with the OpenPeak Tablet, a 7-inch touch device that was running with a 1.9-GHz  Atom Z6xx Series CPU, but the potential for that kind of power in a larger device than a phone means even more powerful multimedia and a potential challenge to the iPad.

More Energy Efficient Than Prior Intel Chips

To play in the phone space, however, you need more than performance. You need long battery life. Prior Intel chips, such as the Atom Z5xx, were too power hungry to consider putting into a phone, but Moorestown is another story. The new CPUs offer strong improvements in endurance, even when using a battery with the same capacity as a standard BlackBerry battery. According to Intel, Atom Z6xx chips achieve:

  • 10 days or more of idle power (50x previous Atom CPUs). Intel defines idle as any time a device is on but not in active use. So a phone that periodically gets push e-mail would still be considered idle.
  • 2 days (48 hours) of continuous audio playback.
  • 5 hours of continuous video playback

In our briefing, Intel literally spent hours going over everything they’ve done to achieve this kind of power savings, but among the achievements that make this kind of power saving possible are:

  • New Standby Power States: For Moorestown, Intel invented two low-power states called S0i1 and S0i3. S0i1 kicks in when the user is using the device but isn’t giving any input at the moment (ex: reading a Web page). S0i3 kicks in when the device is idle. Switching between S0i1 and S0i3 happens very quickly so little power is wasted transitioning from lower to higher power states.
  • SpeedStep Technology: The processor can automatically adjust its speed to match the software’s requirements. So, if it’s doing something that only requires 1-GHz of speed, it only needs to run at 1-GHz. The lower the speed, the less power consumed.
  • Distributed Power Gating: 19 different “power islands” on the chipset can go into low power states when not in use. So rather than just putting the whole chipset to sleep or not, only those elements which are needed receive full power.

Final Thoughts

Apart from the demo Aava phone and OpenPeak tablet, we really haven’t seen much in the way of devices with the Atom Z6xx and, though we saw some impressive demos in Intel’s lab, we haven’t been able to test the endurance or performance of an actual Atom Z6xx-powered device in the field yet. However, if Intel can attract the right partners, this platform has the potential to really catapult the company into the heart of the smart phone race.

That said, we’re puzzled by the lack of Windows support. MID and Tablet manufacturers who want to use Windows 7 as their OS are going to be at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, the applications which take full advantage of Moorestown’s processing power are largely Windows-based. If you want to play a DRM-protected HD movie or go on an adventure in World of Warcraft those programs live in Windows right now. Perhaps with the power of Atom Z6xx chips at their fingers, developers will start porting games and video services like Amazon Video On Demand to Android and Moblin. Intel is counting on it.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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