Intel smartphone chip with 3D transistors to ship this year

Intel's smartphone chip code-named Merrifield will ship to smartphone makers this year, and phones could appear next year

Intel will start shipping its high-performance Atom smartphone chip with 3D transistors to device makers later this year, who will then test the chip for use in handsets.

The Atom chip, code-named Merrifield, will improve performance and battery life on smartphones over Intel's existing handset chips, a spokesman for the company said. The chip has been redesigned from the ground up, and the new architecture is designed to make the chip faster and more power-efficient.

Intel announced Merrifield last May and said it would be targeted at high-end smartphones. It will eventually succeed the company's current smartphone chip code-named Clover Trail+. Intel is expected to announce new customers for Clover Trail+ at the Mobile World Congress trade show being held in Barcelona.

Merrifield will be made using a 22-nm manufacturing process and bring 3D transistors to smartphones. Intel already makes laptop and desktop chips using the same process, and claims it brings significant gains in performance and power efficiency. 3D transistors are stacked to form something like a tiny house, while Intel's older chips have the transistors laid flat to the surface of the chip. A 3D structure is the best way to keep improving transistors as chips get smaller, Intel has said.

The chip maker is also its accelerating its 14-nm smartphone chip development as it tries to catch up with ARM, whose processors are used in most smartphones. ARM-based chips are made by companies such as Qualcomm using a 28-nm process.

The Intel spokesman couldn't say when smartphones based on Merrifield would be released. It usually takes a year to 18 months for device makers to test and validate a new chip and bring it to market, meaning it's unlikely to hit the market before later next year.

Many details about Merrifield's are still unknown, Intel is likely to ramp up its marketing for the chip towards the end of this year.

The first "Intel Inside" smartphone started shipping last year, and the chip maker is using MWC to highlight its progress in the market. Intel's new Clover Trail+ chips deliver double the performance of its existing Atom smartphone chips, code-named Medfield, according to Intel. The Clover Trail+ lineup already has the Atom Z2580 chip running at 2.0GHz, and Intel is expected to announce faster models, including the 1.6GHz Z2560 and the 1.2GHz Z2520.

Intel said Asus will release a device with the Clover Trail+ chip, though no further details were available. Lenovo has already introduced a smartphone called the K900 with the Z2580 chip. The phone will start shipping in China in the second quarter.

Asus is expected to announce a tablet based on an Atom processor code-named Lexington, a slower variant of Medfield aimed at low-cost smartphones and tablets. Acer and smaller phone makers Safaricom and Lava International have already announced smartphones based on Lexington. Intel is also expected to announce that Egyptian carrier Etisalat is building an E20 smartphone based on the Lexington chip.

Intel is still playing catch-up to ARM, the processor design of choice for the top smartphone makers. Intel is just getting started, and around 20 Intel Inside smartphones are currently shipping in 10 countries.

Intel-based smartphones are not yet available in the U.S., and believing the mature markets have become saturated, it is targeting developing countries where smartphone shipments are growing quickly.

Intel is also trying to make the case that its smartphone processors are as power-efficient as ARM. But the major device makers are still backing ARM, with Samsung and Apple developing ARM-based processors in-house for use in their handsets.

Intel will also use MWC to highlight its quad-core tablet chip code-named Bay Trail, which will appear in tablets during the holiday season this year.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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