Several years ago, back when Intel was still trying to break into the smartphone market, the company announced a highly unusual partnership. Because Intel couldn’t build a smartphone modem integrated on-die on its own silicon at that time, the company decided to partner with TSMC, which handled its modem manufacturing. This allowed Intel to bring an SoC to market that could compete in the budget and mainstream smartphone markets of the time with the on-chip modem that was critical to competing in that space. The chip, dubbed SoFIA, had a multi-year roadmap and Intel also inked deals with the Chinese manufacturer Rockchip to bring devices out for the mainland Chinese market as well.
A new complaint filed against Intel and emailed to ExtremeTech by smartphone and device manufacturer Qbex, a Brazilian company, alleges that defects in the SoFIA design led to a number of smartphone fires and thousands of complaints against the company. QBEX alleges that the SoFIA parts were defective from the beginning, that Intel was aware of the defects, and that the company has taken little to no action to fix the problem.
SoFIA devices were mostly a play for markets outside the US, and the CPUs themselves were fairly modest, even compared with other Atom processors. Clock speeds were in the 1GHz – 1.2GHz range, with both dual-core and quad-core parts available on the market. Of the various SoFIA chips, only the Rockchip models are listed as having shipped on Intel’s Ark website:
According to Qbex, Intel approached it about working together on a joint smartphone in January 2015. As part of that agreement, Qbex’s smartphone — which carried Intel Inside branding — would use parts built as part of the Rockchip agreement. We’ve wondered in the past about which smartphones had fielded the Rockchip design and Qbex just filled in that part of the puzzle.
Qbex actually praises Intel’s collaboration and representation of the ongoing work relationship between Qbex, Intel, and the various Chinese semiconductor manufacturers that provided additional components for the device, writing “For all practical purposes, the ODMs [Original Device Manufacturers] functioned as an extension of Intel, which is exactly what Ms. Souza and other executives of Intel had represented.” Qbex sold 235,074 Intel smartphones from October 2015 to December 2016. While that’s small potatoes compared with Samsung or Apple, the company considered these sales figures to be quite good “for a once local electronics company.”
The filing then alleges that this success was a “curse in disguise for Qbex” because “Intel’s central microprocessor and/or mobile system had a design defect that caused the devices to overheat and even explode.” Qbex claims that Intel was aware of these defects by October of 2015, before the Qbex phone had gone on sale, but did not communicate this information, despite sharing it with the ODMs that were handling actual device manufacturing.
What follows reads a little like the back-and-forth between the EPA and Volkswagen, at least from Qbex’s point of view. First, Intel said that the temperature readings were a little high, but normal for the product. Then it promised a software update to bring temperatures down. All the while, complaints and returns were escalating throughout 2016 — 401 devices were returned in April, 915 in May, and 1,446 in June. Even after Intel announced it would cancel SoFIA, it apparently promised Qbex it would still release a software update to repair the handsets and bring operating temperatures down.
But that didn’t happen, and customer returns skyrocketed by mid-2016. In July, Qbex received 9,090 complaints or returned devices, with 5,962 in August. Qbex claims that its own internal measurements identified a defect in the SoFIA microprocessor itself that “caused the smartphones to overheat, catch fire, and sometimes explode.” The exact nature of this flaw is not identified, but since the device was built by ODMs of Intel’s choosing and according to Intel’s specification, the problem could lie almost anywhere within the hardware. Presumably it isn’t a conventional battery problem, or the Qbex case would have stated that specifically, but this is not certain.
Qbex is accusing Intel of selling known-defective merchandise and general breach of contract.