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Cheap Intel-based Android tablets get real

May 27, 2014 — by Eric Brown 3,747 views

Toshiba tipped a $110 Android tablet using a quad-core Intel Atom, while Intel revealed plans to license Rockchip to make its own low-cost Atom-based SoCs.

Ever since Intel’s 22nm, Silvermont core-based Bay Trail and Merrifield system-on-chip families were announced, it seemed that the x86-based Atom would finally draw close to ARM on battery life while also offering competitive performance. Yet it remained to be seen whether Intel could also compete on price. Two announcements today suggest that the company can do just that.

Bay Trail architecture and other planned Silvermont-based SoCs
(click images to enlarge)

First, Toshiba announced a quad-core Atom-based, Excite Go Android tablet that will retail for $109, and could appear for as little as $99 when it goes on sale in July. Second, Intel announced its first processor partnership involving the Atom. Its licensing deal calls for Rockchip to design its own SoCs in 2015 based on Intel’s upcoming “Sofia” Atom SoC design. The deal involves a newly announced quad-core version of the integrated Sofia SoC design, due in 2015, and will target “entry and value tablets.”

Toshiba Excite Go


The Excite Go tablet runs Android 4.4 on a quad-core Atom SoC. Toshiba did not mention the specific Atom model, but with four cores, it would likely be either one of the originally announced quad-core new Atom Z3000 (Bay Trail-T) models, or one of the newer Z37x5 models announced in March. Toshiba was one of the few vendors to use the Atom Z3000 in its Windows 8 tablets, with its Encore 8-inch model. Aside from the DreamTab kids tablet announced jointly by Intel and Dreamworks back in January, which is expected to ship in June, the Excite Go is the first Z3000-based Android tablet we’ve seen.

Toshiba’s $110, 7-inch Excite Pro tablet
(click images to enlarge)

The 64-bit Atom Z3000 SoC is built with a 22nm process and uses Tri-Gate 3D semiconductor design techniques. These and other enhancements are said to enable longer battery life compared to the earlier Atom Z2400, found in a few Android tablets. The Z3000 SoC also runs at up to 1.9GHz and offers double the compute performance and triple the graphics performance compared to the previous-generation Atom, claims Intel.

The Excite Go’s $110 price is low for a quad-core tablet from a mainstream vendor like Toshiba. By comparison, Google’s Nexus 7 with 16GB can be found for as low as $159, and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD with 8GB can be had for as low as $120. HP tightened the screws recently with an HP 7 Plus Android 4.2 tablet available for $100. However, that price is for the 8GB model, and its quad-core SoC is the Cortex-A7 based Allwinner A31, which is unlikely to be as fast as the latest Atoms.

Toshiba has not revealed how much storage would be available at the $110 price, but says the device can be purchased with up to 16GB flash. There’s also a microSD slot capable of supporting 128GB SDXC cards. The 12.5-ounce tablet, available in a Satin Gold finish, features a 7-inch, capacitive multi-touch display with 1024 x 600-pixel resolution. A micro-USB port is also available.

The stated battery life of 7.5 hours, or 6 hours for video playback, is not encouraging for the Atom Z3000 line. However, this could also be due to battery capacity or other design tradeoffs associated with achieving an aggressively low price point.

The tablet ships with Google Play and Google Drive, and comes pre-loaded with a full version of OfficeSuite Pro, which normally sells for $15. The tablet will ship standard with a front-facing videocam, but will also offer an optional rear-facing camera that works with Toshiba’s TruCapture camera app.

The Excite Go will be available for purchase at $110 beginning in early July, says Toshiba. More information should eventually appear on the Toshiba Excite tablet page.

Rockchip to license Sofia Atom design

Intel announced a strategic agreement with China-based Rockchip (Fuzhou Rockchip Electronics Co.) to license a quad-core, 14nm-fabricated Sofia Atom design for Rockchip SoCs aimed at entry-level Android tablets. Under the agreement, the SoC platform for “entry and value tablets” will be Intel branded, and both Intel and Rockchip will “sell the new part to OEMs and ODMs, primarily into each company’s existing customer base,” says Intel.

The partnership with another vendor is unusual for Intel, and reflects its ambition to ramp up quickly to make up for lost time in the mobile marketplace. Rockchip’s contributions to the Sofia Atom are a bit unclear, but a Wall Street Journal reportcites Intel as saying Rockchip will offer “other technology, such as graphics circuitry.”

Intel’s low-cost tablet goals …and tools
(click images to enlarge)

Intel announced the Sofia Atom in November, and followed up with more information in April. At the time, it was billed as a dual-core SoC for entry-level smartphones, but in conjunction with the Rockchip news, Intel has now revealed plans for a quad-core part aimed at tablets. No further details were provided on the SoC, however.

As previously announced, the Sofia will be the first Atom processor with an integrated baseband chip. According to Intel’s latest estimates, the dual-core 3G version expected to ship in the fourth quarter will be followed by a quad-core 3G model, and then an LTE version, both due in the first half of 2015. The first Rockchip devices will use the quad-core 3G design.

Sofia is one of three announced SoC families based on Intel’s next-gen, 14nm “Airmont” architecture. There’s also an Airmont based “Cherry Trail” design aimed at higher-end smartphones and tablets, and a Braswell family, billed as a successor to Bay Trail-M (notebook) and Bay Trail-D (desktop) Atoms. Sofia appears to be first to reach market, however.

Back in November, Intel said the Sofia will also be the first Atom built by a third-party foundry, although Intel hopes to bring it in-house by the end of 2015. Intel was not speaking of fabless Rockchip, but rather Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), which it appears will be building SoCs for both vendors.

Like fellow China-based Allwinner, Rockchip is increasingly grabbing Android device market share, especially in lower- and mid-range devices aimed at the Asian market. However, it has also shipped some highly sophisticated ARM SoCs, including the quad-core, Cortex-A9 RK3188 and the quad-core, Cortex-A17 RK3288.

“The strategic agreement with Rockchip is an example of Intel’s commitment to take pragmatic and different approaches to grow our presence in the global mobile market by more quickly delivering a broader portfolio of Intel architecture and communications technology solutions,” stated Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to differentiate our product portfolio, and the first-of-its-kind collaboration with Intel helps us do this,” stated Min Li, Rockchip CEO. “The combination of Intel’s leading architecture and modem technology with our leading mobile design capability brings greater choice to the growing global market for mobile devices in the entry and value segments.”

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3 responses to “Cheap Intel-based Android tablets get real”

  1. Chris Sparks says:

    I sure wish these companies would consider an all Linux Tablet instead of Android.

  2. jezra says:

    Hopefully the bootloader won’t be locked and the owner of the device will be able to install the OS of their choosing.

    • Chris Sparks says:

      That would be optimal. I have been considering trying to replace my existing system.img file with one that is linux and fax the bootloader into booting my system. Still need to learn what is involved as I think the bootloader runs a program called init and then a bunch of scripts. If I can intervene somewhere in this process I might be able to boot up my ubuntu or archlinux img.

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