If you don’t yet know of the Alcatel One Touch Idol X+, I don’t blame you — the phone’s announcement at CES last month was a pretty low-key affair. On the other hand, this Chinese-made device (which is marketed under the TCL brand in China) is worthy of an introduction, because it could be the prelude to a significant shake-up in the smartphone market.
The Idol X+ is due to arrive in February with some decent specs — including a 5-inch, 1080p display and a 13-megapixel camera — alongside an attractively low selling price in the region of $319.99 contract-free. Its only major drawback, aside from a rather forgettable design and appearance, is a lack of LTE connectivity.
What makes this handset unique, however, is its processor: an unusual eight-core chip made by Taiwan-based MediaTek . This silicon is not only cheap (thus allowing the Idol X+ to be cheap too), but it’s also able to run all eight of its cores simultaneously, whereas alternatives from Qualcomm and Samsung stick to running four cores at a time.
Unexpectedly good performance: the Alcatel One Touch Idol X+
Known as the MT6592, this chip has already been the subject of a lot of hype from within MediaTek. The company has put forward benchmarks showing something that ought to be impossible: that the MT6592 can keep pace with Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 800, which is generally found only in smartphones that twice as much as the Idol X+ (and also in the Nexus 5, which is Google -subsidized.)
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, however, so I’ve been working with a UK-based chip analysis company, GameBench, to gather some more rigorous and independent performance data about the Idol X+ and its processor. Unlike most other benchmarks, GameBench measures a phone’s performance while it’s running real-world applications — in this case, games downloaded from the Google Play store. Not only does this offer more realistic measures of performance (including battery drain as well as raw speed), but it’s also much less susceptible to the sort of cheating that has affected some “synthetic” benchmarks.
And here’s the upshot: Although GameBench’s results are only preliminary at this stage, because they’re based on a pre-release Idol X+, they dosupport the notion that the low-cost MediaTek chip can keep up with, and even beat, the far more expensive Qualcomm processor. Compared to a Samsung Note 3 with a Snapdragon 800, the Idol X+ and its MediaTek chip delivered an 18 percent advantage.
According to GameBench’s CEO, Sri Kannan Iyer, the MediaTek chip particularly stood out for its battery life — a metric that mainstream customers generally consider to be at least as important as max performance:
“Although the Snapdragon is a solid all-round performer, MediaTek’s power efficiency was very impressive and it led to a higher overall result… In our preliminary scores, the MediaTek chip is better at playing popular 3D games, because it can play them smoothly for longer periods.”
MediaTek could shed its “budget” image in 2014 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What does this unexpected result mean for the smartphone industry? Are phone buyers about to shift en masse to MT6592-equipped phones like the Idol X+, instead of buying Qualcomm-based models?
For the time being, I actually don’t think much will change, due to a flaw I mentioned right at the start of this article: the MediaTek chip doesn’t support LTE, and in 2014 a lot of people are going to want LTE phones, including in China. That’s probably why the stock market has so far barely reacted to MediaTek’s latest chip or to the optimistic projections in its recent quarterly report.
Then again, it’s only going to take around six months for MediaTek to put an LTE modem into the MT6592, and that’s when things are likely to get interesting. Once LTE becomes a commonplace feature, attention will return to the more traditional aspects of what makes a good mobile processor — namely, price and performance — and this is exactly the sort of battle MediaTek is equipped to fight.
Of course, by the time MediaTek starts delivering LTE-enabled processors in Q3, Qualcomm’s offerings will undoubtedly have improved too, and the Snapdragon 800 will no longer be its flagship product. But MediaTek should at least be able to mount a challenge for the mid-range tier, currently represented by the likes of the HTC One Mini and Galaxy S 4 Mini, which cost $300-$400 and use lower-specced chips like the Snapdragon 400. After all, if you offer superior performance and equivalent features for a lower price, people are eventually going to notice.