Whether you call it a companion computing device or a tablet, the next generation of mobile devices has reignited the battle to build the best chip. ARM kicked off Computex this week by proclaiming that it will capture 50 percent of the mobile computing market-including tablets, e-readers, netbooks and laptops-by 2015. Several ARM customers such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments have been discussing their upcoming processors for everything from smartphones to laptops.
The first dual-core Cortex-A9 devices are hitting the market now and quad-core A9 devices will be available starting in late 2011. Most of these range from 1.4GHz to 1.6GHz, though A9 cores can be pushed to as high as 2GHz. Dual-core Cortex-A15 SoCs at speeds up to as high as 2.5GHz will begin sampling in late 2011 and the first devices will be available in late 2012. This will be followed in 2013 by a new core design code-named Kingfisher.
At one time ARM used Imagination Technologies' graphics processors, but its own Mali graphics is now on its third generation and is the most licensed GPU by units, according to ARM. The biggest win to date is the Samsung Exynos 4210 processor with a dual-core Cortex-A9 and Mali-400MP GPU, which powers the Galaxy II series smartphones. Up next is the Mali-T604, which ARM says will have two to three times better performance-good enough for "console-level gaming."
At Computex Qualcomm announced that its next-generation Snapdragon processor, the MSM8960 will start sampling this month and show in device later this year. Based on a new Krait microarchitecture and manufactured on an advanced 28nm process, the MSM8960 is a dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz to 1.7GHz with Qualcomm's own Adreno 220 graphics and integrated 3G/4G LTE radios. Qualcomm said it will offer 50 to 65 percent better performance than its current Scorpion-based Snapdragons and "far better" performance than the Cortex -A9 (Qualcomm has an ARM architectural license which enables it to design its own CPU cores form the ground up). The MSM8960 will be followed by a Krait-based quad-core APQ8064, an application processor without integrated modem, which will be sampling in early 2012. Together these Krait processors, which will eventually scale as high as 2.5GHz, will reach beyond smartphones.
"This can go into everything from the top tier of smartphones into tablets, convertibles, clamshells, and even all-in-ones," said Mark Frankel, a Qualcomm vice president who runs the company's computing and consumer products (CCP) product management team.
At the show, Qualcomm said that Snapdragon is now in 125 devices-mostly smartphones but also tablets such as the HTC Flyer-with another 250 products in the works including more than 40 of which are tablets. Qualcomm was demonstrating tablets and smartphones from Acer, Asus, Compal, Foxconn, HTC, Lenovo, Quanta and ZTE. Qualcomm's strategy is to support all mobile operating systems including Android, BlackBerry, Chrome OS, HP webOS, Windows Phone and Windows 8. At Computex, Qualcomm emphasized tablets running Android 3.0 Honeycomb. But the company also confirmed that both the MSM8960 and APQ8064 will support Windows 8, and Microsoft's preview of Window s8 included a Qualcomm reference tablet.
Nvidia had the inside track on Android 3.0 Honeycomb with its Tegra 2 dual-core chip in the Motorola Xoom, and it is also working with Microsoft on Windows 8. Next up is Project Kal-El, which will have four 1.2GHz Cortex-A9 cores and a faster GPU (12 cores compared with 8 cores in the Tegra 250). This chip will be available in August and should show in devices starting in the fall. Unlike Qualcomm, Nvidia doesn't make processors with integrated radios, but it recently acquired a baseband company called Icera, so future chipsets and eventually chips will likely integrate 3G and 4G modems. At its booth, Nvidia was demonstrating a 10.1-inch prototype tablet with Kal-El running Android 3.1. And the Microsoft event included a Kal-El laptop running Windows 8. Prior to the show Nvidia posted a video meant to demonstrate the performance potential of this quad-core application processor.
Like Nvidia, Texas Instruments focuses on standalone application processors. A version of its OMAP 4 processor, the 4430 with a 1.0GHz Cortex-A9 dual-core, powers RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook. The next major microarchitecture will be the OMAP 5, which will use ARM's next-generation Cortex-A15 cores running at speeds up to 2.0GHz. TI says it will have three times the performance of the 4430. But the OMAP 5, which will be manufactured on an advanced 28nm process, won't go into production until sometime next year. So this week TI announced an interim chip, the OMAP 4470, which boost the dual Cortex-A9 cores to 1.8GHz to provide beer performance in tablets. The 4470 also uses Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX544 graphics core, which TI says has about 2.5 times the performance of the 4430. The Windows 8 demo at Computex included a reference tablet, built by Quanta, with the OMAP 4430. TI also confirmed that the OMAP 4470 would support Windows 8 as well as Android and Linux operating systems.
Both Intel and AMD have been focused on building better application processors to compete in this space. Intel's Oak Trail Atom SoC will be followed later this year by Medfield, which should be more competitive. And AMD introduced a new Z Series APU for tablets at Computex. There's no doubt that Qualcomm, Nvidia and TI are focused on smartphones and tablets too, but it's a short leap from a tablets to convertibles, sliders and laptops. So as Intel and AMD try to attack these new areas, they better watch their flank too.