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Wednesday, 10 May 2017 15:30

Qualcomm raises the bar for mid- to flagship-range processors


Some interesting things are happening in the mobile chip world with a potential to be even more disruptive than the Intel/AMD x86 battles of past and present.

First, a little history – every mobile system-on-a-chip (SoC) is based on ARM processor technology. The ARM Foundry Program builds a three-way partnership between ARM, an approved silicon foundry, and a fabless semiconductor company for ARM processor-based designs and enables OEMs without access to fabrication facilities to work directly with an approved ARM semiconductor foundry.

There are many silicon foundries – SMIC (Samsung), TSMC (Taiwan), UMC (Taiwan), DongbuAnam (China), and Global Foundries (was a spin-off from AMD and is US based with foundries in Europe, India, and Asia) are among the best known. Wikipedia has a list here that also includes memory, ASIC, CMOS, and other processor production.

Licensed OEMs (designers) include Apple for its A series, Samsung (Exynos), Qualcomm (Snapdragon), HiSilicon (Huawei), MediaTek (uses TSMC), and even graphics companies like NVIDIA (Tegra). Each OEM can use a base ARM core design and customise adding different GPU (at present mainly Adreno and ARM Mali), controllers, RAM, co-processors, baseband modems etc. There were about 15 licensed designers at last count.

Intel and AMD also have silicon foundries mainly for x86 processors and support chips but Intel dabbles in ARM (Atom), modem and memory chips as well. With that brief overview, you can see that smartphone leader Qualcomm, itself in a similar position to Intel in the x86 arena has had to make some big adjustments to stop other OEMs eating its lunch.

What the explosion in smartphones has done, especially in recent times, is place pressure on ARM OEMs and foundries to produce enough. Qualcomm’s flagship 835 (made by SMIC) was rumoured to be sold out for all its 2017 production and, of course, SMIC also makes the Samsung Exynos equivalent – more to assure Samsung of supply than to compete, as Exynos is not sold to other smartphone makers.

But I want to focus on Qualcomm as it is its lunch is being eaten by MediaTek, HiSilicon, and others, especially in the value to mid-range segments. As stated earlier in the HTC One X10 first look there is no stigma in using a non-Qualcomm chip – the latter are premium chips at premium prices. Huawei uses its own HiSilicon Kirin SoC and these are no slouch either.

But Qualcomm needs volume as much as the next company and it seems that moving high-end features from the 8XX range to the 6XX range is its weapon of choice.

For example the new 14nm Snapdragon 630 (replaced 626) and 660 (replaces 653) “mobile platforms” (not allowed to call then SoCs anymore) feature:

  • Dual-camera Spectra image signal processors
  • x12 600/150Mbps modems
  • Adreno 512 GPU (4K and VR support) with 30% higher performance
  • Always aware and Neural Processing Engine for AI and machine learning and speech
  • Aquisting hi-res audio
  • Mobile security and biometrics
  • Wi-Fi AC, 2x 2 MU-MIMO
  • Bluetooth 5
  • LPDDR4x low power RAM
  • Quick Charge 4.0 – 5 hours in five minutes and battery management
  • USB-C 3.1.

Six months ago, I would have said such features like a Snapdragon 810/820 (last year’s flagship processors) would not be in a US$250 handset for some years. I find these mid-range SoCs more interesting than the flagship releases – you expect to use the latest and greatest technology in them.

Qualcomm has raised the bar incredibly on the mid-range and flagship range and it is going to take time for other OEMs to come close. Sure, in terms of raw processor horsepower they will be contenders but in features, they will have to play catch up very fast.

Larry Paulson, vice-president, and president, Qualcomm India, said, “The fact that we lead with the flagship 800-series is because it's developed at the highest end of the mobile industry. One of the objectives is to build the best product that we possibly can but the second objective of that is to allow the cascading down. Features that you today see in the Snapdragon 800-Series may be available to the Snapdragon 400-Series in two or three years."

At the lower end, there are major announcements in the 400 and 200 series that will see sub $300 and sub$100 phones benefit greatly.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!



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