Chip wars heat up at Mobile World Congress

With billions of mobile devices up for grabs, chipmakers are racing to add more cores, implement 64-bit computing, support higher-resolution displays and better cameras, and integrate faster LTE wireless.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

In the traditional PC market, the chip wars have abated. Intel has cemented its lead in technology and performance, giving it a near monopoly, while AMD helps keep prices low. But as this week’s Mobile World Congress demonstrated, the battle to power the billions of mobile devices in coming years is only intensifying. Chipmakers are racing to add more cores, implement 64-bit computing, support higher-resolution displays and better cameras, and integrate faster 4G LTE wireless.

The biggest news from Intel was the launch of its 64-bit Atom Z3480 dual-core processor for Android smartphones and tablets. The Z3480, known as Merrifield, is a significant upgrade over the 32-bit Z2580 Clover Trail+ introduced at last year’s Mobile World Congress. Like the Bay Trail platform for tablets, Merrifield uses Intel’s most advanced 22nm manufacturing process and Silvermont core. The Z3480 is also capable of operating at speeds up to 2.13GHz. Intel claims it will provide up to 1.7x better CPU performance than the Z2580 on single-threaded applications. Merrifield also uses a newer generation of Imagination’s PowerVR graphics, which is twice as fast, according to Intel. Finally Merrifield is designed to work with Intel’s first-generation 4G LTE multi-mode modem, the XMM 7160, which supports download speeds up to 150Mbps. Intel showed some of its own benchmarks suggesting that the Z3480 delivers better applications and 3D gaming than the Apple A7 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 800.

Intel also talked in detail about the Atom Z35xx quad-core, known as Moorefield, slated for release later this year. Aside from twice the cores and cache, Moorefield will run at up to 2.3GHz, have enhanced PowerVR graphics and support faster memory. Moorefield will also work with the XMM 7260, Intel’s first multi-mode modem to support LTE-Advanced Category 6 speeds. At Mobile World Congress, Intel demonstrated the XMM 7260 achieving data rates of 300Mbps downstream and 50Mbps upstream simultaneously. The XMM 7260 will be available in the second quarter. What Intel still doesn’t have, though, is a single chip with both an application processor and baseband modem. To address this, it plans to release SoFIA, a 22nm chip with a Silvermont core and integrated 3G modem later this year, followed by a version with a14nm Airmont core and 4G LTE sometime next year.

These are all big steps for Intel in mobile, but there’s one thing still missing: major design wins. At Mobile Word Congress Intel did not announce any specific design wins for Merrifield, though it promised devices would be available from multiple companies in the second quarter. The XMM 7160 is already used in some versions of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 3, and at Mobile World Congress Asus announced an updated Fonepad 7 with the LTE chip paired with the older Clover Trail processor. Acer, Dell and Lenovo are also working on devices with its LTE modems, Intel said. It also announced multi-year agreements with Asus, Dell, Foxconn and Lenovo to develop smartphones and tablets using its chips, without providing details.

Intel smartphone platform roadmap (Credit: Intel)

What’s more surprising is that so far there doesn’t seem to be too much happening with Bay Trail, which first launched in the third quarter of last year with some 140 design wins. There are a handful of Bay Trail tablets running Windows--most notably from Acer, Dell and Lenovo--but I was surprised we didn’t hear more about Android tablets this week. Intel has previously said that because Bay Trail initially targeted Windows, Android tablets won’t show up in volume until the second quarter, but even so I’d expect to hear more by now. Intel was also wrong-footed by the shift in the Android market to low-cost tablets. Cherry Trail, the 14nm version of Bay Trail with the new Airmont core and updated Intel graphics slated for later this year should help out by lowering manufacturing costs.


Qualcomm is in a very different position. It already dominates the mobile chip market with its Snapdragon processors with integrated 3G and 4G LTE wireless. The company needs to defend its turf both at the high-end, from the likes of Intel, Samsung and Nvidia, and at the low-end from fast-growing chip designers in Asia such as MediaTek, Spreadtrum and Allwinner.

For the high-end, Qualcomm announced a minor update to its Snapdragon 800. The 801 is manufactured using the same 28nm process and it has the same 32-bit Krait 400 quad-core CPU, Adreno 330 graphics and integrated 150Mbps LTE. But the CPU now runs at up to 2.45GHz, the GPU maxes out at 578MHz and the memory bus is faster. The Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2, both announced this week, are among the smartphones that will use the Snapdragon 801. Qualcomm previously announced the Snapdragon 805, with more powerful graphics, but this chip won’t be available until later this year.

At the lower end, Qualcomm announced two new 64-bit chips for mid-range smartphones. The Snapdragon 610 has four Cortex-A53 CPU cores and the Snapdragon 615 has eight A53 cores arranged in two clusters for big.LITTLE processing. This is a departure for Qualcomm in several ways. First, with the exception of its most low-end chip, the company typically designs its own CPU cores, rather than using ARM’s designs. Second, Qualcomm has been publicly skeptical of many of these features including 64-bit computing, eight-core CPUs and big.LITTLE processing. But perhaps time-to-market and lower design costs now trump the value of custom cores in the fastest growing parts of the smartphone markets. And Qualcomm can still rely on its Adreno graphics and especially its integrated LTE modems, to differentiate its chips. Qualcomm had previously announced its first 64-bit chip, the lower-end Snapdragon 410. All three chips should begin sampling in the third quarter of 2014 and show up in devices in the fourth quarter. During the show Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore announced that the Windows Phone update this spring will add support the entire Snapdragon line, including the 200 and 400, which should result in less costly models.

Samsung announced two new Exynos processors for smartphones and tablets. The Exynos 5422 is an updated version of its existing 8-core chip (the Exynos 5420) combining four 2.1GHz Cortex-A15 cores and four 1.5GHz Cortex-A7 cores in a big.LITTLE heterogeneous multi-processing configuration---meaning any combination of up to eight cores can be used at one time depending on the task. It uses the same Mali-T628 MP6 graphics. The Exynos 5260, which has six total CPU cores (two 1.7GHz A15s and four 1.3GHz A7s) also with heterogeneous multi-processing, is a bit more interesting since it should provide a good balance of performance and power in less costly devices. But both are largely incremental using Samsung’s current 28nm manufacturing process and the ARMv7 32-bit core, though Samsung told CNET that it will have 64-bit chips later this year. The Exynos 5422 will be used in some versions of the Galaxy S5 and the Exynos 5260 is used in the Galaxy Note 3 Neo.

After a splashy CES, Nvidia was relatively quiet at Mobile World Congress. The Tegra K1, its first mobile processor with the Kepler architecture used in PC graphics, isn’t due out until later this year. The company added the i500 LTE Category 3 modem to its Tegra Note 7 tablet design and announced that Wiko Mobile, a cell phone company in France, would be the first to deliver a smartphone with Tegra 4i, Nvidia’s first chip with an integrated version of the i500. LG said that a version of its G2 Mini for South America will also use the Tegra 4i. But these are relatively minor announcements. Last year Nvidia seemed focused on getting into mainstream smartphones, delaying the rollout of Tegra 4 to fast-track development of Tegra 4i. More recently the company has said Tegra, which began with “super-phones,” is now targeting tablets, set-top boxes and smart TVs, and automotive, and that mainstream phones are a “non-focus.”

Competitor Imagination Technologies used the show to reveal in a detailed blog post that its top-of-the-line PowerVR GX6650 graphics will have 192 cores--just like Tegra K1--and claimed that PowerVR will deliver better performance and power efficiency. Since neither is available we’ll have to wait a while to see how they really stack up. Also keep in mind here that both companies are referring to graphics cores, not CPU cores, and the definition of what counts as a graphic core varies from company to company.

MediaTek announced its first 64-bit chips. The MT6572 and MT6732 both use the same Cortex-A53 multi-core CPU supporting heterogeneous multi-processing, Mali-T760 graphics and integrated 150Mbps 4G LTE. The difference is that the MT6572 has eight 2.0GHz A53 cores and the MT6732 has four 1.5GHz A53s. These won’t be available until the end of the year, but MediaTek has another eight-core processor, the 32-bit MT6595, which should be out in the first half of the year.

Allwinner also announced a 32-bit eight-core chip, the UltraOcta A80, which combines four Cortex-A7s and four Cortex-A15s with Imagination’s PowerVR G6230 graphics. Allwinner said devices using the A80 will be in the market in “coming months.” Marvell announced its first 64-bit processor with an integrated LTE multi-mode modem, the Armada PXA1928, which uses four A53 cores like MediaTek’s MT6732. Finally Spreadtrum announced a chipset, the SC6821, which it said will enable $25 smartphones running Mozilla’s Firefox OS.

From a technical standpoint, the benefits of eight-core processors or 64-bit computing in a tablet is unclear. After all the iPad Air gets by fine just fine with a dual-core chip. Google hasn’t even released a 64-bit version of Android yet--though that could change at Google I/O in June--and 32-bit apps will be around for a long time. But specs are what sell in mobile, and as long as that’s the case the chip wars will continue.


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