The battle for the soul of your smartphone

The cut-throat market for the chips that power smartphones and handhelds just got more competitive. In the past few days, no fewer than five semiconductors companies, including Samsung, ST Microelectronics, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and, yes, even Nvidia, have all announced new application processors.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

The cut-throat market for the chips that power smartphones and handhelds just got more competitive. In the past few days, no fewer than five semiconductors companies, including Samsung, ST Microelectronics, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and, yes, even Nvidia, have all announced new application processors:

I won’t spend a lot of time detailing the specs of each of these. (I've included some links to more detailed analyses of several at the end of this post.) Instead, I want to highlight some of the trends in these mobile chips, which don’t get quite as much attention as all the new eye-candy from Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG and others announced at GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, but are growing in significance.

Traditionally, cell phone design has been dictated by the telecommunications companies. They have long design cycles (in other words, it takes a long time to get a handset off the drawing board and into production), use low-cost components and little memory, and are geared primarily for making and receiving calls. Data services have been slow to catch on, especially in the U.S., because of a poor user experience and high prices.

Apple's iPhone upset this industry dynamic. Even in comparison to users of other smartphones, it's clear that iPhone users spend significantly more time browsing the Web, watching YouTube videos, checking stock prices, and so on. Over the holidays, the iPhone accounted for more traffic to Google servers than any other mobile device, despite the fact that it has a fraction of the worldwide market share held by smartphones based on the Symbian, Windows Mobile or BlackBerry operating systems. Why? It's a better browser.

The software gets most of the credit. But the features that make the iPhone a superior smartphone--a sophisticated user interface; a large, high-resolution display; high-quality video playback--all require more powerful hardware too. Just as Windows Vista's Aero interface needs a decent processor (and lots of memory), a better smartphone requires a powerful application processor. In fact, the mystery application processor in the iPhone is based on the same ARM 11 series core found in the new Samsung S3C6410, and is probably very similar, even though Apple uses different model numbers.

All of the new processors announced at Mobile World Congress consist of a primary, general-purpose core as well as several multimedia engines designed to support features such as:

  • Large displays with high resolutions
  • Recording and playback of high-definition video (720p)
  • Advanced 2D and 3D graphics for better interfaces and gaming
  • Cameras with resolutions as high as 12 megapixels
  • Two-way videoconferencing
  • NTSC/PAL TV-out

The entry of GPU guru Nvidia is an indication of just how important graphics processing is becoming in the mobile market. Then again, it's not too surprising when you consider that archrival AMD is already in the mobile processing business and STMicro's new Nomadik STn8820 uses the same graphics core as AMD's Imageon. The challenge is to deliver all of these features in a chip that is inexpensive, uses relatively little physical space, and doesn’t kill the battery. Nvidia claims a device using its APX 2500 can play 10 hours of HD video or 100 hours of audio on a single charge. Both Nvidia's APX 2500 and STMicro's Nomadik support OpenGL ES 2.0 and Microsoft Direct3D Mobile, key interfaces for richer graphics on Windows Mobile devices.

[Update 2/13/2008 at 11:33 AM EST: Engadget Mobile got some hands-on time with a reference design of a handheld using Nvidia's APX 2500 at GSMA Mobile World Congress and came away very impressed. Short version: It plays Quake.]

There's another reason why everyone is jumping into the mobile application processors: that's where the money is. PCs still consume about 40% of the world's semiconductors, and PC unit shipments are growing at a decent clip--about 12% annually. But cell phone unit shipments grew 20% last year to nearly 1.2 billion units.

All of the new application processors have one other thing in common: they are all based on ARM cores, mostly on the high-performance ARM 11 series. This illustrates just how tough it will be for another new player, Intel, to break in with an entirely different microarchitecture, starting with Silverthorne this year.

As with PCs, the main processor is only one of many chips in a smartphone. Other key components include the baseband, which sends and receives wireless data; power management; memory; and literally dozens of other digital and analog circuits. A few of these new application processors--STMicro's Nomadik and Qualcomm's QST series--are part of broader chipsets that incorporate some of these other functions such as power management, GPS and WiFi. Eventually nearly all smartphone features--including the 3.5G basebands--will be integrated in a single chip in an SoC, or system-on-a-chip. At an industry conference last week, TI unveiled a 45nm SoC that includes a processor with an 840MHz ARM 11 core and a 3.5G baseband on a single chip that measures only 144 square millimeters (55% smaller than its current 65nm SoC) and uses 63% less power.

In the short term, separate chips will probably offer more design flexibility, and a better combination of price and performance, than SoCs for most smartphones, and certainly for larger handheld devices. But eventually these SoCs will lead to even smaller, cheaper and more powerful smartphones with better battery life.

For more on new mobile processors, check out these stories:

New chips could boost iPhone rivals (BusinessWeek)

AMD, Nvidia duel in mobile graphics; 3D iPhone still distant (Ars Technica)

Nvidia dialing in to mobile phones (News.com)

Nvidia rolls first cellular CPU (EE Times)

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