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Mobile Communications

Intel isn't yet done with x86 smartphone chips

Smartphones with Intel-based x86 chips aren't dead yet. Intel may have stopped making Atom chips for smartphones, but a partner is keeping that effort alive.

Chinese chip maker Spreadtrum is still making x86 smartphone chips based on the Atom architecture named Airmont. The company will ship a powerful eight-core Atom variant for smartphones in the second half of this year.

Smartphone makers will be able to use the Spreadtrum SC9861G-IA chip in mid-range handsets. It will have a PowerVR GT7200 graphics core and support 4K video and displays with resolutions up to 2560 x 1440 pixels.

It's far more powerful than the original Atom smartphone chips made by Intel. Handsets with the chip were shown at Intel's booth at the ongoing Mobile World Congress trade show.

And that may not be all. Intel is also open to the idea of making smartphone chips again, but with integrated modems. Intel wants to make chips for any device that needs to connect, and that could include smartphones, said Aicha Evans, senior vice president and general manager of the Communication and Devices Group at Intel, in an interview at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

 Intel isn't yet ready to talk about how it wants to target smartphones, but it will make chips based on customer demand, Evans said. Instead of handsets, Intel's focus for now is on internet of things (IoT) devices, which is a much larger opportunity.

The chip maker last May stopped making its Atom smartphone chips after a failed effort to break into the handset market. Intel started focusing on new areas like IoT, data centers, memory, gaming PCs and virtual reality.

Meanwhile, Spreadtrum may come out with smartphone chips based on newer Atom architectures, a company representative said at the company's station in the Intel booth. The latest architecture is Goldmont, which is now being used in Pentium and Celeron PC and tablet chips code-named Apollo Lake. Intel is also using Goldmont in new Atom chips for IoT devices.

Intel struck a partnership with Spreadtrum in 2014 to make variants of Atom smartphone chips for the Chinese market. Intel also struck a similar deal with Rockchip, and said it would continue to honor those partnerships. Rockchip is making Atom chips for IoT devices; those processors end with the letters RK.

The eight-core Spreadtrum chip is mainly built for Chinese smartphone makers, with support for multiple LTE bands including TD-LTE, FDD-LTE and TD-SCDMA, which are specific to the Chinese market.

The chip also has support for dual 13-megapixel cameras. It is made using the 14-nanometer process, the same used for chips like Kaby Lake and Skylake.

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