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Posted: 06.03.14

Intel puts x86 in a rock

Intel announced it entered into a strategic agreement with Rockchip to accelerate the rate at which Intel brings its architecture and communications-based solutions to the Android tablet market. 

ROCKCHIP!?? Mali-based, ARM-loving little Fuzhou-based Rockchip Electronics—really? 

Under the agreement, Rockchip, founded in 2001, and Intel will deliver Intel’s SoFIA quad-core chip with integrated 3G modem for Android-based mobile phones. Initially Rockchip will have their parts made in 28-nm at TSMC, and in late 2015 Intel will start building them for Rockchip, possibly in 20-nm. There will also be a LTE version, also due in the first half of next year. Intel’s SoFIA dual-core 3G version is expected to ship in the fourth quarter of this year, but not by Rockchip.

Rockchip is known as one of the lowest-cost vendors of ARM-based tablet SoCs—i.e., sub-$130 Android tablets with connectivity; Walmart sells a FileMate Clear X2 7 tablet with a Rockchip chip for $109.99.

Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich said they will ship 40 million tablet SoCs this year. The company exceeded their goal of shipping 10 mil-lion tablet chips in 2013 by 500,000 units, Krzanich said. In Q1 this year, they shipped 4.5 million. The company is believed to have 90 design wins for Android and Windows tablets, but they probably won’t all make it to market.

Rockchip SoCs were in 39 million tablets last year, so if they can maintain that level of shipments, it gives Intel access to a larger TAM; however, Rockchip will not ship Intel parts exclusively, and not until the first half 2015.

Intel shipped 4.6 million tablet chips in Q4’13, while Rockchip shipped 9 million. However, Allwinner, based in Zhuhai near Shenzhen, accounted for 18.2 million of the 88.3 million tablet processors shipped in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to IDC.

Shipments of tablet SoCs in China edged down 2.7% sequentially in the first quarter of 2014, affected by seasonality, according to preliminary findings by Digitimes Research. However, the first-quarter shipments still represent a 37.6% on-year growth.

Rockchip remained the top vendor in the segment in the first quarter but its shipments dipped by 4.8% sequentially, while Allwinner Technology saw its shipments increase, so there’s no guarantee in the volatile price-sensitive Chinese market.

Intel will 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 third-party graphics IP to the SoC. Rockchip has used ARM Mali and Vivante GPU IP, but it’s difficult to imagine they could be integrated into an Intel x86 design.

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 in-vestment from Intel in Rockchip.

Min Li, Rockchip CEO, has said he’s always looking for innovative ways to differentiate his product portfolio, so being the first-of-its-kind to collaborate with Intel could play out nicely for him and Rockchip. But how many deals like this can Intel do?

The upside for this deal for Intel looks like it might represent 10 to maybe 20 million parts in 2015, which is going to help Krzanich hit his goal of 40 million this year. On the other hand, Chinese vendors are selling dual-core ARM chips at $4 or $5 and quad-cores at $8 or $9. Is this a market in which Intel can make any money, or is it just a way to keep the fabs warm?

And given the IP leakage history in China, one wonders if x86 will go viral in the middle Kingdom as MIPS did, and ARM may.