CTIA: New chips power smartbooks, tablets and smartphones

Intel has spent a lot of time making its mobile processors act more like the application processors in smartphones, creating a new category of netbooks in the process. But the opposite is happening as well.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Intel has spent a lot of time making its mobile processors act more like the application processors in smartphones, creating a new category of netbooks in the process. But the opposite is happening as well. Companies that design smartphone chips, generally based on technology from the UK's ARM, are developing processors with multiple cores that operate at higher speeds. That trend is evident at this week's CTIA Wireless show.

These more powerful application processors are primarily designed to meet consumer demand for more smartphones. But they are also popping up in other devices with larger displays including smartbooks, e-book readers and tablets, where they compete directly with Intel, and to a lesser degree, with AMD.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor, for example, is starting to show up in several interesting devices including Sprint's HTC Evo 4G, the first WiMax 4G/3G handset. The Evo 4G has a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.3-inch touch-screen display, Android 2.1 with an enhanced version of HTC's Sense UI, two cameras including an 8MP camera that captures 720p video, Adobe Flash support and HDMI-out. It also functions as a mobile hotspot for up to eight Wi-Fi devices. T-Mobile's HTC HD2, a high-end smartphone with similar specs designed for the company's 3G network, is now available as well. Like the Evo 4G, the HD2 is based on the 1GHz Snapdragon processor and has a 4.3-inch touch-screen. Google's Nexus One and the LG Expo also use Snapdragon. Later this year we should see other types of devices based on Snapdragon including the Lenovo Skylight and HP Airlife smartbooks, IdeaPad U1 hybrid, and Dell Mini 5 (aka Streak) tablet.

Most of these products are based on the original Snapdragon processor, the 1GHz QSD8650, manufactured using a 65nm process. Qualcomm is currently sampling a 1.3GHz version, the 8650A, which will support Google's Chrome OS, and later this year it will be sampling a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon, the 8672, manufactured at 45nm. (Sampling is the industry's term for giving customers an early look at a new chip.) The newer chips also have improved graphics and video processing cores--all of which are based on technology Qualcomm acquired from AMD's handset division. At CTIA, Qualcomm also announced plans for new Gobi laptop modems that will support 4G LTE and faster versions of HSPA+ and EV-DO, as well as backwards compatibility with mainstream 3G networks. The Gobi modems are already an option on laptops from Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Sony among others.

Samsung, which designs and manufactures its own application processors, announced its first smartphone based on a 1GHz processor. The Galaxy S is an HSPA+ handset with a 4-inch AMOLED touch-screen (800x480), Android 2.1 and Samsung's new "Smart Life" software, and a 5MP camera capable of capturing 720p video. In a keynote address, JK Shin, the president of Samsung's mobile business, said the Galaxy addressed the three critical components for a successful smartphone: speed, screen and software. Shin said the new Samsung processor was twice as fast as the one found in an average smartphone. Not to be outdone by HTC and Sprint, Samsung also announced earlier today that it will offer one of the first commercial 4G LTE/CDMA handsets, the Samsung SCH-r900, with MetroPCS in the second half of this year.

Marvell is showing a range of products based on its Armada line of SoCs. The low-end Armada 100 series, which has an 800MHz Marvell Sheeva ARM v5-compatible core and an integrated EPD (Electronic Paper Display) controller, is designed for inexpensive e-book readers and tablets. Marvell is showing a tablet prototype, called Moby and developed with Foxconn, which could sell for less than $100. Spring Design's Alex dual-display e-book reader and Entourage's Edge e-book reader/netbook hybrid also uses the Armada 100 series. (Competitor Freescale has a similar product with an integrated e-ink controller.) At the opposite extreme, the Armada 500 and 600 series SoCs have 1GHz-plus Sheeva cores compatible with the ARM v7 instruction set, relatively high-performance GPUs and a chips that can encode and decode 1080p. These SoCs are designed for everything from high-end smartphones (part of a platform that includes the Aramada 600 SoC, a Marvell 3G baseband, and a Marvell Avastar 802.11n, Bluetooth and FM combo chip) to smartbooks and tablet PCs (Armada 500 series). Products based on high-end Armada SoCs should arrive by the end of this year.

Nvidia announced its Tegra 2 SoC at CES, so it hasn't made any news here at CTIA, though the company continues to show lots of prototype smartbooks and tablets--and a few commercial products such as the Zune HD based on the original Tegra. The heart of Tegra 2 is dual Cortex A9 cores running at up to 1GHz, which when combined with a GeForce GPU and a video encoder/decoder capable of 1080p video processing, ought to make for a powerful solution. Nvidia has a separate solution, Ion 2, for netbooks, but Tegra 2 could easily scale up into those kinds of devices perhaps running Android or Chrome OS (something Nvidia has said it is working on). In addition, since Windows Phone 7 is closely related to the Zune HD, I wouldn't be surprised to see smartphones using Tegra 2 and Microsoft's new mobile operating system toward the end of this year or early 2011.

Apple still isn't saying much about the A4 SoC behind its upcoming iPad, though there's been plenty of speculation about the chip. Intel isn't exhibiting at CTIA Wireless, and while Atom is the chip that launched millions of netbooks--and a few dozen MIDs--so far only one handset maker has announced a smartphone based on its Moorestown platform. The LG GW990, which will have a 4.8-inch display and run Intel's Linux-based Moblin operating system--now part of MeeGo along with Nokia's Maemo--will be available in Asia in the second half of this year, but the company has no plans to release it in the U.S.

It's a bit premature to declare, as one CNBC commentator from the show floor this morning, that the 'distinction between the laptop and smartphone is dead.' But there's no doubt the two are moving much closer together. So far it seems the wireless chip designers and handset makers are scaling up faster than Intel is scaling down. But this battle is far from settled and should lead to lots of innovative mobile devices.

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