Superphones need super chips: The mobile processor race is on

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week highlighted the technology industry's latest truism: Mobile processors have all the fun.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

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.

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