MWC: Qualcomm Jumps the MWC Gun, Launches New Midrange and Mainstream SoCs

Qualcomm has done something few in the mobile industry may have expected this week, they just announced four new SoCs two weeks before Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Qualcomm’s new SoCs, though positioned for mainstream smartphones, are expected to compete with today’s high-end mobile processors from other SoC manufacturers. The company is announcing mid-range and mainstream SoCs using licensed ARM-based cores, but differentiating using many features and capabilities that are generally considered high-end. Qualcomm also announced they would brand their modems with a new and simple designation, spanning from Snapdragon X5 and X12 modems. One of these modems has never been seen before and is entirely new. I believe all of these new developments are leading up to Qualcomm possibly releasing their newest generation of custom cores used in a new 800 series SoC at the back half of the year, which I am very excited about.

Bringing high-end features to the midrange

The newest additions to the Snapdragon 600 series are the Snapdragon 620 and 618. These processors are designed to replace the existing 600 series chips and come with new ARM Cortex-A72 cores paired with ARM Cortex-A53 cores in differing configurations of eight and six cores. The Snapdragon 620 will have four A72 and four A53 cores while the Snapdragon 618 will have two A72 cores and four A53 cores, meaning that these processors will both take full advantage of ARM’s 64-bit processing capabilities and the new A72 cores from ARM that promise to deliver improved performance and power savings. I must note that the reality is that having eight CPU cores does not add anything to the user’s experience and many vendors may simply opt for a Snapdragon 618 with fewer cores. While 8 CPU cores doesn’t add much or anything to the experience, Chinese manufacturers are asking for it, competitors are pushing it and Qualcomm is delivering it.

Both SoCs will also feature dual-channel LPDDR3  to enable certain functionalities gained from the Snapdragon 800 series such as 4K video recording, 2K display support, QuickCharge 2.0 and dual ISPs supporting up to two 13MP cameras. This is all thanks to the trickle down strategy of bringing high-end Snapdragon 800 features into the midrange, indicating the company’s goal to democratize their best technologies across the board and compete at a higher level. The Snapdragon 620 and 618 will also have new Adreno GPUs, but Qualcomm isn’t quite telling anyone what those next generation Adreno graphics will be called quite yet. Finally, as I have written about so often, the new 620 and 618 will come chock full with heterogeneous computing goodies leveraging Qualcomm’s core competency in not only GPUs, but DSPs, fixed function accelerators, ISPs, modems, GPS and the ability to stitch all of it together into a well-crafted solution.

(Credit: Patrick Moorhead)(Credit: Patrick Moorhead)

Qualcomm is also including their new Snapdragon X8 LTE modem with their Snapdragon 620 and 618 processors, giving their mid-range processors the ability to do carrier aggregation and get download speeds of up to 300 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 100 Mbps. This means that the Snapdragon X8 is a CAT 7 LTE modem (3GPP Rel 10) capable and is somewhere between Qualcomm’s 20nm MDM9x35 (now called the Snapdragon X7 LTE modem) and their Gobi MDM9x45 MDM9x45 (now called the Snapdragon X12 LTE modem) which are CAT 6 and CAT 10 respectively.

Taking the competition to the midrange

Currently, all of Qualcomm’s competitors are expected to release their high-end SoCs with similar CPU specs, including ARM’s A72 chip, which was touted by ARM recently as the company’s highest-end chip for 2016. Interestingly, Qualcomm appears to be saying that they expect the A72-based Snapdragon 620 and 618 to be in devices in the second half of this year. Is this ARM’s conservatism on dates or does Qualcomm have the time advantage? It’s hard to tell right now.

Additionally, I believe this would also mean that Qualcomm expects to put their own next generation custom cores into their newest Snapdragon 800 series chips this year and, based on history, would very likely significantly outperform ARM’s fastest CPU cores and the merchant SoC competition. What’s more interesting is that most of Qualcomm’s competitors, namely MediaTek and Samsung, are both using ARM’s off the shelf cores and are both expected to use A72 as they have with A57, A53 and A15 for their high-end parts. This portends to a back half of the year where Qualcomm would very likely have significantly higher-performing and potentially lower performance per watt mobile CPU cores than the competition.

Finally, by including the Snapdragon X8 LTE modem with the Snapdragon 620 and 618, Qualcomm also puts themselves in a position to have best in class modem performance and features, even in the midrange where they may potentially see the closest competition. Qualcomm is being very strategic with their modem plays, as it is where they have their greatest lead against their competitors and it is wise of them to properly harness this lead in order to set themselves as the standard, even in the mainstream.

The mainstream gets some serious love

As Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 series continues to mature, they are continuing to introduce new features into this very mainstream product segment. Qualcomm is introducing the Snapdragon 425 and 415 processors in addition to their new Snapdragon 600 SoCs and have significantly beefed up their capabilities there as well.

Qualcomm is continuing this theme of pushing their superior modem technology by including the Snapdragon X8 LTE modem in the Snapdragon 425 processor as well. This will give unprecedented LTE performance to devices that are easily considered to be ‘cheaper’ phones in western worlds. This also puts competitive pressure on Samsung, MediaTek and Huawei to offer higher performance modems on their lower end of their mainstream offerings, driven by carrier pressure. The Snapdragon 410 originally brought LTE performance to their price tier and now Qualcomm is bringing next generation LTE performance to the mainstream. The Snapdragon 415, however, will still have the same LTE as the 410 with CAT 4 speeds of up to 150 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up, undoubtedly to hit a price point.

The Snapdragon 425 will also have eight 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 cores paired with the company’s Adreno 405 GPU. Again, while having eight ARM cores will not going improve consumers’ experiences today it satisfies the checkbox requirements of Qualcomm’s customers in regions where more cores means better and where their competitors already have similar core counts. The Snapdragon 415 will have the same processors and GPU as the Snapdragon 425, but will have the slower Snapdragon X5 LTE, making that the only known difference between the two.

Fast time to market

All of these chips announced today will all be available as part of Qualcomm’s QRD (Qualcomm Reference Design) program, meaning that device manufacturers can very quickly (30 days) and easily build devices with these chips utilizing Qualcomm’s reference design program. QRD has already launched in over 1,000 devices and really helps device manufacturers properly utilize Qualcomm’s hardware with compatible components and working software. This helps elevate the quality of Qualcomm’s customers’ devices and reduce their time to market.

In the markets where the Snapdragon 600 and 400 series are most likely to be launched, having QRD availability from the get go means that previous QRD OEMs can quickly and easily deploy updated products with these new SoCs without too much monetary and time investment on their end.

Snapdragon modem branding to simplify and increase marketing spend effectiveness 

With today’s announcement, Qualcomm is also doubling down on their Snapdragon branding, as they are now branding their discrete modems as Snapdragon X5, X8 or X12 and moving away from “Gobi”. Obviously, there will be more to come, but they are simplifying their modem designations from their previous 9×25, 9×35 and 9×45 designations. In fact, the Snapdragon X12 modem is simply the Qualcomm Gobi 9×45 modem renamed into the new Snapdragon branding.

Qualcomm is also strengthening the Snapdragon branding by adding so many of the popular high-end features and modem technologies across the board, giving the Snapdragon brand even more value. By improving the products’ capabilities across the board and unifying their modem and applications processor naming, Qualcomm is also giving themselves an opportunity to invest more in Snapdragon. This means that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon messaging can get even stronger and they can spend more money on marketing their Snapdragon brand with a stronger focus. This is a classic marketing spend efficiency play. Their Gobi brand didn’t get much external marketing attention aside from the design-in cycles with OEMs and ODMs, but now that they are part of the Snapdragon family, there is a very good chance we could see more modem marketing than ever before. I see carriers more likely to embrace this simplified marketing than with the Gobi nomenclature.

Wrapping up

Qualcomm’s announcement today is slightly unexpected, as one would expect the company to announce such processors at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona. But the company clearly wants people to pay attention to their announcement now, not get lost in the fray that is MWC, but more importantly, give their OEMs and ODMs the stage related to new 4XX and 6XX based devices. While I expect the new Qualcomm SoCs to provide similar CPU performance to the competitors, I’m expecting Qualcomm to have advantages in power, graphics, camera, video and special features like QuickCharge 2.0, object recognition and DSP-driven workloads like “wake on command”.

Qualcomm is making some major moves with their new Snapdragon branding of their LTE modems in the Snapdragon X5, X8 and X12 LTE modems and unifying their modem and applications processor branding. Getting aligned firepower behind less brands is a smart move and will help them better optimize their spend.

They are also making significant investments in improving the modem technology in all of their midrange and mainstream SoCs and may very well be the first to market with ARM’s A72 processor, launching before ARM’s own public projections of 2016. Qualcomm’s intention to include ARM’s fastest future processor for 2016 in their late 2015 SoCs is also a huge signal to their competitors and ARM that they have some serious firepower on the way by the way of their own custom cores for an 8XX Snapdragon, and it should be interesting to see how they end up compared to the competition. Based on how well the “Krait” CPU was embraced, I think they will do quite well.