Will Expediency Make Intel an ARM Mali Licensee?

28 May 2014

The news that Intel wants to drop its Atom processor core into a Rockchip SoC to give it a boost in the low-end Chinese tablet computer market is an interesting development (see Intel Partners With Rockchip For Tablet Push), not least in that it mixes up business models and alliances in the chip business.

It provides a good illustration of the "pragmatic" Intel that incoming CEO Brian Krzanich said he wanted to foster last November. The pragmatism definitely includes the willingness to use outside foundries to get Intel chips made.The Rockchip-designed SoFIA will start out at TSMC for reasons of expediency, Krzanich said, before moving to internal manufacture at the end of 2015. But will this pragmatism go as far being prepared to pay ARM (Cambridge, England) a royalty on each Rockchip-designed SoFIA chip it sells.

Intel has asked Rockchip to use its design expertise and knowledge of the China technology ecosystem to develop SoCs for tablets based on Intel intellectual property – specifically the Atom processor core and Intel's 3G modem. Rockchip is a good company to ask because it has built up leading-edge experience doing exactly that with ARM processor and graphics cores.

However, when asked on a conference call what IP cores the two parties were bring to the deal Krzanich said Intel's contribution would be the Atom core, the 3G communications and the SoFIA architecture and platform. He added that as well as doing the design work Rockchip would contribute graphics and connectivity although Krzanich included the caveat that the specification was not yet finalized.

And Rockchip mostly uses ARM GPUs.

In the past Rockchip has worked with graphics cores from Vivante Corp. but most of the company's current portfolio of SoCs is based on Mali graphics cores. One exception is the RK3168, a low-power dual-creo Cortex-A9 based CPU manufactured in 28nm process, which includes PowerVR SGX54x as its graphics core. However the chip is thought to have only seen limited use to date.

Intel may prefer that Rockchip does use PowerVR graphics as it is already a PowerVR licensee and has been a significant investor in its developer Imagination Technologies Group plc (Kings Langley, England). However, the more obvious starting point for Rockchip's design work would be its top-of-the-line RK3288 with quad-core Cortex-A17 and Mali-T764 GPU.

What Rockchip gets from the deal is chip it can sell with an integrated 3G modem, albeit on a chip that is branded Intel. What Intel gets is a speed of execution and proliferation and a chip that otherwise wouldn't get done. It also gets the benefit of Rockchip's knowledge of the Chinese Android tablet computer market and the chance of some design wins. The price for those design wins may be eating a sliver of humble of pie and putting a call into Cambridge to seek permission to use ARM's Mali graphics -- and paying the royalties.

Related links and articles:

News articles:

Intel Partners With Rockchip For Tablet Push

China's Rockchip Takes 64-Bit ARM License

Intel CEO Pledges Renewed Innovation, Pragmatism

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