Intel makes first real breakthrough in LTE modems
First multimode 4G XMM product is shipping in Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, LTE-A and system-on-chip to follow in 2014
Published: 31 October, 2013
Intel has started to look credible in mobile devices at last, not just because it has driven down the power consumption in Atom, but because it is belatedly making strides in LTE modems. 4G basebands and full integration with Atom will be the only way to worry Qualcomm, and Intel is starting to harness its acquisition of Infineon's wireless unit at last with its first multimode LTE modem, and plans for a full system-on-chip (SoC).
The company has admitted that the lack of all-in-one LTE SoCs, combining modem and processors, has hindered its progress, but it is making progress. But this week, it shipped a multimode, multiband LTE module, which is already being used in the 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, in its 4G flavor.
Intel's first LTE modem, launched last year, was not multimode, and so was positioned in the LTE-only space occupied by suppliers like Sequans, rather than taking on Qualcomm in the 3G/4G world of handsets. The new XMM 7160 moves into the mainstream, supporting up to 15 global LTE bands as well as GSM and HSPA.
However, it is not fully integrated with Atom yet, although the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 does run that processor too. The Tab is a good win for Intel, especially as the Korean vendor has its own chips too, but tablets are more forgiving than handsets when it comes to separate chips. To target lower cost or smaller slates, or most smartphones, Intel needs to put Atom and XMM on one SoC - something it has said it will do next year, following in the footsteps of other would-be Qualcomm challengers like Nvidia, which is integrating the multiband modem technology it acquired with Icera. However, timescales and details of an SoC remain shrouded in mystery.
As well as SoCs, next year will see Intel upgrade XMM further. The promised XMM 7260 will add support for some features of LTE-Advanced features, such as carrier aggregation, as well as nodding to the Chinese ecosystem with the addition of TD-LTE and TD-SCDMA.
Aicha Evans, VP of wireless at Intel, denies it is too late to the LTE modem party, saying the firm has taken just 3.5 years to build a 4G business from scratch since it acquired Infineon (and having taken the wrong gamble in mobile broadband by initially backing WiMAX, she didn't add). "We did in three and a half years what some couldn't do in seven years," Evans said in an interview, and Intel now has a full product pipeline to turn out multiple modems over the coming year.
And she said there are many high end devices which still see performance advantages in separate modems and processors, and these are the flagship products where Intel has sought to establish the credentials of its offerings before chasing the mass market.
Intel also unveiled the M.2 PCI Express module, which is currently going through interoperability testing with various unnamed mobile operators, said Intel, and will be adopted soon in products to launch next year from Huawei, Sierra Wireless and Telit. The giant also announced an integrated RF transceiver module, the Intel SMARTi m4G, which was codeveloped with Murata and incorporates the transceiver with most other front end components in one package. This could reduce printed circuit board area by 20% and component count by 40, said the vendor.