SAN JOSE, Calif. – In a sign of Intel's aggressive pursuit of the mobile market, the x86 giant will co-design an integrated tablet SoC with Rockchip, a China-based designer of ARM-based SoCs.
Although an unusual pairing of rivals, the deal appears to be a win/win. Intel gets deeper access to China's tablet makers and Rockchip gets a part with integrated 3G communications, something ARM currently cannot provide Rockchip's rivals such as AllWinner.
Intel and Rockchip will ship in volume before July 2015 a quad-core 3G SoC aimed at entry-level tablets. It will use Intel's Atom processors and 3G silicon and may use graphics and connectivity blocks from Rockchip, said Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich in a conference call Monday.
The part fills a hole in Intel's Sofia product family which includes a dual-core 3G part shipping late this year and a quad core LTE version in 2015. More importantly, Intel aims to get access to Rockchip's customers, OEM and ODM tablet makers in China.
"This is probably the fastest growing segment of the tablet market -- there is so much growth probably no one company can support it," Krzanich said.
"For the low end of the market they are targeting, Rockchip could replace the Intel graphics core with ARM Mali to reduce die area," said Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst with market watcher Tirias Research
Although the Rockchip deal is not exclusive, Intel currently has no plans in the works for similar cooperative design and sales deals, he said.
Financial terms of the Rockchip deal and details of the co-designed chip's architecture are still being worked out. Like the other Sofia SoCs, the chip will be made at TSMC and transitioned to Intel's fabs, probably in 2016.
Rockchip tied with China's Allwinner in 2013, each shipping about 40 million mobile apps processors, according to International Data Corp. Today it has a family of 10 ARM-based SoCs, ranging from a quad core A17 to Cortex M3 device.
Intel probably did not need the extra engineering help, but may see a side benefit in getting engineers in China to work on mobile x86 designs, said one analyst.
"I think Intel could have done this design with its own internal design resources -- I see it more as a marketing play than a development play," said Nathan Brookwood, principal of market watcher Insight64.
The Sofia chip is based on a multicore ARM design Infineon's communications unit was working on when Intel acquired the group, Brookwood said.
"Intel is very serious about entering the volume tablet business," said Krewell of Tirias. "This is a very unusual move by Intel, though, partnering with an ARM-based competitor to build the Intel tablet business -- Rockchip is known as one of the lowest-cost vendors of ARM-based tablet SoCs," he added.
Intel exceeded its goal of shipping 10 million tablet chips in 2013 by 500,000 units, Krzanich said. It hopes to ship 40 million tablet SoCs this year, and shipped 5 million in the first quarter, he said. Intel now has design wins in 90 Android and Windows tablets, he added.
The Samsung Galaxy 3 Note is already using Intel's 7160 standalone LTE chip. A version of the chip supporting carrier aggregation ships this quarter, he said.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times