Intels New Atom Z3590 Is Too Little, Too Late

CPU World recently reported that Intel "quietly" launched a new smartphone and tablet processor known as the Atom Z3590. The Z3590, according to Intel's ARK page, is based on the same fundamental architecture (known as Moorefield) as the Atom Z3580 processor that's currently in the market, but with CPU and graphics frequency boosted a bit.

In particular, the max CPU turbo speed goes from 2.33GHz in the Z3580 to 2.5GHz in the Z3590, and the maximum turbo boost on the graphics block goes from 533MHz to 640MHz.

Although this looks like a pretty solid improvement, particularly given that there have been no architectural or manufacturing process changes, for Intel's mobile business it is far too little, far too late.

Moorefield completely outclassed; a speed boost won't change thatIntel's fundamental problem in the mobile chip space is that its products just aren't competitive when all things are considered. In the few devices that Intel has been able to secure design wins in, the company's processors can put up reasonable performance numbers, but it's almost always outclassed.

For example, in AnandTech's review of the ASUS ZenFone 2, powered by the Atom Z3580, the Intel chip is often beaten in general system tests by other high-end smartphone processors, although it does manage to win a few tests. In terms of graphics, the Z3580 is clearly out of its depth against other high-end phone processors.

In addition to not-quite-good-enough performance as far as CPU and graphics performance goes for high-end flagship devices, Intel's mobile chips often lack critical features beyond the CPU and graphics. For example, Intel's high-end Atom processors don't feature integrated modems while other flagship merchant mobile processors do.

The Atom Z3500-series chips also have relatively weak camera imaging performance (for example, the Z3500-series of chips can't support very high-resolution phone cameras), and they don't offer hardware accelerated decoding and encoding of the latest video standards (i.e., HEVC).

In short, a slight boost in the CPU and graphics speeds on the current Moorefield architecture won't fundamentally change Intel's competitive positioning in the smartphone and tablet market.

It'll be a while before we see something interesting out of Intel's mobile groupAt this point, it looks like it will be a while before we see something interesting out of Intel's mobile-chip group. Right now, Intel's flagship offerings consist of a warmed-over Moorefield processor for phones and an underwhelming 14-nanometer tablet processor in the form of the Cherry Trail processor launched earlier this year.

At some point next year -- some leaks suggest the first quarter of 2016, and others suggest around June of 2016 -- Intel is expected to launch its next generation high-end smartphone and tablet applications processor known as Broxton.

With Broxton, Intel is expected to bring a substantial architectural overhaul atop of its new 14-nanometer manufacturing technology, which could mean a fundamental improvement in the company's competitive positioning in mobile.

That being said, Broxton is late relative to the company's original expectations, which substantially increases the risk that it won't be as competitive in terms of computing and graphics as hoped when it finally arrives to the market.

Broxton also isn't expected to integrate a leading-edge cellular modem, which means that devices using it will require a standalone baseband chip to function in phones and in cellular tablets, potentially putting Intel's solutions at a disadvantage relative to peers.

I'll be listening to what Intel management has to say with respect to its mobile product pipeline at the company's upcoming investor meeting, but as far as 2016 goes, I'm not holding my breath.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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