Superphones need super chips: The mobile processor race is on

Superphones need super chips: The mobile processor race is on

Summary: The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week highlighted the technology industry's latest truism: Mobile processors have all the fun.

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The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week highlighted the technology industry's latest truism: Mobile processors have all the fun.

Among the key developments this week:

  • Nvidia on Tuesday highlighted its roadmap through 2014 and demonstrated its quad-core Tegra, which will arrive in tablets in August and smartphones by Christmas.
  • Qualcomm on Monday outlined its latest Snapdragon chips, but said it won't sample quad-core processors until 2012. The company's latest Snapdragon will be featured in HTC's Flyer tablet.
  • Texas Instruments was talking "Me-D experiences" courtesy of its latest OMAP 4 platform. TI was talking about stereoscopic 3D, touchless gesturing and interactive projection. TI is trying to break out of the mobile device constraints.
  • Samsung talked up its low-power dual core application processors that power its Galaxy S II. Samsung is talking low power and high performance.
  • And Marvell went the integrated processor route with a phone on a chip platform. Marvell is going for the global market of smartphone and tablet users. Marvell's single chip is a 1.2 Ghz application processor with 3D graphics and 1080p multimedia. This "world phone" chip---3G and Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access and High-Speed Packet Access---is clearly aimed at China.

Jefferies analyst Adam Benjamin said in a research note that Mobile World Congress has been more competitive than CES 2011 as "competitors announce new products and the game of one-upmanship continues." "Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung, TI, Broadcom and Marvell have all announced new products and/or outlined aggressive product roadmaps and we expect to see the handset (manufacturers) heavily promote the apps processor specs," said Benjamin.

Add it up and the gigahertz and core wars have gone mobile. As this race between mobile chip players gains speed, the computing advances for mobile devices are going to come quickly. Until now, mobile software has been constrained by the hardware. No more. The hardware will be more than powerful enough to enable many applications. Quad-core mobile processors---assuming they have power characteristics that won't drain battery life---will put mobile device power on par with laptops.

From there, the fun really begins. The other notable point about this mobile processor scrum is that Intel didn't have much to add at the Mobile World Congress. That situation won't last long. Intel will bring its Atom chip to this battle soon enough.

Bottom line: These are fun times for mobile processors and these multi-vendor battles bring memories from the early days of PCs back.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Networking, Processors

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4 comments
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  • To paraphrase... can't change the laws of Physics

    ARM has enjoyed tremendous success in large part because the chips have had relatively low computing powers, and consequently low power (electrical) consumption, resulting in exceptional runtimes.

    You take a handheld form factor with a 1500 mAh battery that had a 12 hour usage time and then bump up the clock rate by 25%... add three more cores... VGA or better screen... move everything to the cloud so you need to depend on your power guzzling 3G radio... what will you get?

    That's the million dollar question. Interesting that Apple wants to make an iPhone Nano and make things smaller.
    croberts
    • RE: Superphones need super chips: The mobile processor race is on

      @croberts
      You get an iPhone/Android Phone/WP7 phone, with battery life that sucks.

      They struggle as it is with 1GHz ARm chips, and they are miserly with power compared to anything Intel do.

      My wife is always looking for a charge for her iPhone 3GS, or complaining it has run out of juice.

      Perhaps the ever smaller, ever more beautiful handsets, ever better screens need to take a back seat for a year or two, until battery tech makes another performance leap.
      neilpost
    • RE: Superphones need super chips: The mobile processor race is on

      @croberts
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  • Multicore is lower power

    The mobile phone people have gone down the route of designing their applications as modular software. What this means is that instead of monolithic software requiring a 2Ghz processor to run, it can run on a dual core 1GHz processor, consuming half the power (power consumption is approximately proportional to the frequency squared, all other things being equal).
    Mobile apps are much better multi-threaded and run on simpler cores.
    Soon in terms of functionality and performance, mobile phones will be matching PCs at a fraction of the power consumption.
    What tends to hammer battery life in mobile phones is the WiFi and Bluetooth; if you turn these off when you don't actually need them, you'll get a much longer time between battery charges. The power consumption of these comms will eventually go down as the signal processing power allows them to extract the signals at lower levels. And eventually, the ethernet MAC layer will be changed - this is what wireless sensors have done in order to get years of life out of a battery.
    tony@...