Mobile World Congress: The new front in the processor battle

At Mobile World Congress, the chips that power mobile devices are getting as much attention as the gadgets themselves. Over the past week Broadcom, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung ST-Ericsson and Texas Instruments have announced new chips that look more like PC processors.

Mobile World Congress, the mega-conference taking place in Barcelona this week, is all about mobile phones. But the chips that power mobile devices suddenly seem to be getting as much attention as the gadgets themselves.

Over the past week a who's who of chipmakers including Broadcom, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung ST-Ericsson and Texas Instruments have announced new application processors. The pace of development has picked up as chipmakers start to focus on tablets, which operate on a faster PC cycle, as well as smartphones which have traditionally had long design cycles. Suddenly these new chips--all of which are based on ARM designs--are starting to look a lot more like PC processors in terms of performance and capabilities.

The best example of this is Nvidia, a newcomer to general-purpose processors that is challenging both incumbent wireless chipmakers, and to a lesser degree Intel and AMD, with its Tegra line. Nvidia was the first to ship a dual-core mobile processor, Tegra 2, and it worked closely with Motorola and Google to deliver the first Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) tablet. The Motorola Xoom, which will reportedly be available February 24, will be followed by Tegra 2 tablets from LG, Samsung and Toshiba.

But Nvidia is already on to its next big thing. This week it demonstrated a tablet using a next-generation Tegra, code-named Kal-El, with four ARM Cortex-A9 cores and a 12-core graphics processor. (My colleague, Sean Portnoy, covered the news here.) Nvidia said Kal-El will deliver 5x the performance of Tegra 2, which has eight graphics cores. More interestingly Nvidia showed Kal-El outperforming the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, one of Intel's older Merom processors for laptops. If Nvidia can stick with its aggressive schedule, Kal-El should be the first quad-core in its class when it goes into production in August (last year Marvell announced a processor using four 1.6GHz ARM-compatible cores, but the Armada XP is really designed for Web servers, network attached storage and media servers--not mobile devices). It will be followed by Wayne in 2012, Logan in 2013, and finally Stark in 2014, which Nvidia promises will deliver 75x the performance of Tegra 2.

Qualcomm has responded by adding a new standalone application processor to its Snapdragon line. It generally prefers to sell platforms that integrate the wireless communications and other components--a strategy that has worked well in smartphones--but it seems tablet companies want the flexibility to mix and match the best processors with different Wi-Fi and 3G/4G modems.

First, Qualcomm announced the APQ8060, a dual-core processor with Adreno 220 graphics that will power HP's TouchPad, which is due this summer. This week Qualcomm followed up with its next-generation line of Snapdragons, code-named Krait. It will include the APQ8064 with four cores running at up to 2.5GHz and Adreno 320 graphics. Qualcomm said it will deliver 150 percent better performance than "currently available ARM-based CPU cores" and 15x better graphics than the original Adreno. The line will also include the single-core MSM8930 with an integrated LTE modem and the dual-core MSM8960 with a dual-code 3G/LTE modem. The Krait processors will also be manufactured on a more advanced 28nm process and will use 65 percent less power than current ARM-based processors, according to the company. The Snapdragon processors are compatible with the ARM instruction set, but Qualcomm designs its own CPUs (using ARM recipes) which enables it to further optimize power management. Qualcomm will ship early samples of its MSM8960 to customers next quarter, but the MSM8930 and APQ8064 won't be available until sometime next year.

Samsung and TI are focused on building powerful standalone application processors.

Samsung announced the Exynos 4210 (formerly known as Orion), an application processor with two Cortex-A9 cores running at 1GHz that will power the Galaxy S II smartphone (the 10-inch Galaxy Tab 2 tablet, however, will use Tegra 2). Samsung hasn't said much about the graphics; there have been some reports that the Exynos 4210 uses ARM's Mali graphics, but I think it is more likely that it uses Imagination Technologies PowerVR, like Samsung's current Hummingbird Cortex-A8 processor. (Samsung is generally believed to be the manufacturer of Apple A4 processor--though neither company has ever confirmed it--and there has been lots of speculation about the features of the A5 as well.) The Exynos 4210 will be in production in March.

TI's OMAP 4 platform has been in the works for some time (TI announced it at last year's MWC), but the first device to use the OMAP4430, RIM's PlayBook tablet, should arrive in late March or early April. The OMAP4430 is based on two Cortex-A9 cores running at up to 1GHz and Imagination's PowerVR540 graphics. LG's Optimus 3D will also use this chip (Anandtech posted some interesting benchmark results yesterday). TI will follow up with the OMAP4440, which boost the frequency to 1.5GHz and has better graphics performance. It will be in production in the second quarter.

Naturally at MWC this year TI announced the OMAP 5 platform, which is likely to be the first application processor based on ARM's Cortex-A15. The Cortex-A15 is not only faster, but it also supports more memory and hardware virtualization. With two CPU cores running at up to 2GHz and multi-core graphics, OMAP 5 will have 3x the processing power and 5x better 3D graphics than OMAP 4, according to TI. The company hasn't discussed the graphics in any detail, but the GPU is likely to be a multi-core version of Imagination's PowerVR SGX543. There will be two flavors: the OMAP5430 with stacked low-power DRAM for smartphones and the OMAP5432 with external DDR2/DDR3 for "mobile computing and consumer products." Like Qualcomm's Krait, TI's OMAP 5 will be manufactured on a 28nm process and TI says it will use 60 percent less power than OMAP 4 (which is manufactured on a 45nm process). TI says some customers will get early samples later this year, but OMAP 5 won't show up in mobile devices until the second half of 2012.

Like Qualcomm, Broadcom and ST-Ericsson focus on integrated chipsets that include powerful application processors, wireless modems and other system components.

At MWC, Broadcom announced the BCM28150, which includes an HSPA+ baseband and the company's Merlyn applications processor, with two Cortex-A9 cores running at 1.1GHz and its VideoCore IV video and 2D/3D graphics processor. The platform, which also includes RF, power management and connectivity chips, is designed for "affordable" Android smartphones. The company has not said when it will be available. ST-Ericsson announced the U8500, with two Cortex-A9 cores and ARM's Mali-400 graphics, way back at MWC in 2010, and should have beat Nvidia to the dual-core punch. But it fortunes have been closely tied with a struggling Nokia (it looks like the N9, which was rumored to use the U8500 and MeeGo, may never see the light of day).

This year ST-Ericsson rechristened its platform NovaThor and announced several new additions with some very high-end specs. The NovaThor U9500 combines an application processor (the Nova A9500) with two Cortex-A9 cores running at 1.2GHz and Mali-400 graphics with an HSPA+ baseband making it a direct competitor to the BCM28150. It is currently sampling and will be available later this year. In the second half of the year, ST-Ericsson will start sampling an enhanced version manufactured at 32nm, the Nova A9540, clocked at up to 1.8GHz and with four times the graphics performance of the U8500.

But the big news here is the Nova A9600, which will be based on two Cortex-A15 cores running at up to 2.5GHz manufactured on a 28nm process. ST-Ericsson claims it will also be the first processor with Imagination's PowerVR 6 series, code-named Rogue, capable of 210 gigaflops (a gigaflop is a billion floating point operations per second). Overall the A9600 will have 200 percent better performance and 20x better graphics than the U8500, according to the company. A direct competitor to TI's OMAP 5, the A9600 will be sampling this year but isn't likely to show up in devices until well into 2012.

All of this sounds impressive, but is there really a need for this kind of power in a mobile device? In a blog post, Nvidia's Mike Rayfield claimed there is real demand for these multi-core monsters. "You might well ask, 'What on earth can be done with nearly 75x improvement in performance over Tegra 2 that Stark will provide in 2014?' Our customers and partners have already indicated that they're confident they can use everything we give them." The usage scenarios that are mentioned frequently include heavy multi-tasking, the capture and playback high-resolution video (1,080p and even 1,440p) at up to 60 frames per second, stereoscopic 3D images and video, support for multiple cameras with sensor resolutions as high as 20 megapixels, to ability to drive multiple high-resolution displays, and augmented reality applications.

Intel is battling all of these companies as it works to shrink its x86 architecture down into mobile devices. I expected to hear more on Intel's Oak Trail platform for tablets out of MWC, but it now looks like that may have to wait for Computex in June. Intel did announce that its 32nm Medfield processor for smartphones was sampling, and CEO Paul Otellini vowed that smartphones using its silicon would ship this year. The acquisition of Infineon's wireless business should also make it much easier for Intel to integrate wireless technologies--the new Intel Mobile Communications unit announced several new modems at MWC--making its platform more competitive with those of Broadcom, ST-Ericsson and Qualcomm.

Intel continues to insist that the x86 architecture is a critical advantage, but the software world is changing too. On the mobile front, Intel lost its key partner for MeeGo when Nokia threw its lot in with Windows Phone. On the PC side, the shift to cloud-based software and services and the rapid growth of the iOS and Android ecosystems for tablets have partially neutralized the x86 advantage. Most important, Microsoft has now committed to porting the next version of Windows and Microsoft Office to ARM. These new versions should arrive in late 2012 just as mobile devices using these 28nm multi-core processors are hitting the market (and as 4G LTE is hitting its stride).

Most of these new application processors will end up in smartphones and tablets, but the combination of more powerful hardware and broader software support will spur the creation of entirely new devices as well. We will almost certainly see hybrid devices along the lines of the Motorola Atrix using multi-core ARM-based processors and running Windows or Android. All in all, it should make for a very interesting 2012.

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