MWC: What An Exciting Time In Mobile Chips With Apple, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung

Right now is a great time to be an analyst tracking the mobile SoC industry as we are seeing some of the strongest mobile SoC offerings from almost all the big players. The mobile SoC market could start to get closer to maturity, especially with some players’ most recent crop of 64-bit SoCs. The most prominent SoCs that are publicly known are from AppleNVIDIA Corporation, Samsung ElectronicsQualcomm and Intel. This isn’t to discount chips from MediaTek, Marvell, AllWinner, or HiSilicon but most of their products don’t target the same markets as their competitors in terms of peak performance and feature sets. I want to run by you my current crop of top picks, which of course, could expand at this years’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) that I will be attending this week.

Apple

Some companies have special strengths in certain areas and others are simply good overall. A good example of that would be Apple, whose A8X triple-core 64-bit ARM Cyclone gen 2 architecture is manufactured on TSMC’s 20nm process. This SoC is especially strong in its CPU architecture, as you can see from these benchmarks, which is only clocked at 1.5 GHz but is still arguably one of the fastest mobile CPUs primarily due to the custom processor core. The A8X also utilizes Imagination’s PowerVR Series 6XT GXA6850 GPU, which enables it to effectively power the high resolution display of the iPad Air 2. It manages to pack all of this inside of a 3 billion transistor chip, which is easily one of the densest mobile SoCs, ever. It also supports 2GB of LPDDR3 1600, which is double what all of its predecessors were capable of in the past. The A8X is the bigger brother to the A8 found in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as it is a tablet-only part for the iPad Air 2.

Nvidia

Nvidia is without a doubt a GPU expert with their mobile SoCs. They have successfully managed to align their mobile SoC release cycle with their discrete graphics GPU cycle, which means that when they claim desktop-class graphics, they aren’t even slightly exaggerating. Nvidia’s latest mobile SoC is the Tegra X1, which is also a 64-bit SoC with a 20nm four ARM Cortex-A57 and four ARM Cortex-A53 CPU cores, making it a big.LITTLE configuration. However, Nvidia’s strength isn’t necessarily in their CPUs, even though they do have their own 64-bit custom CPU cores codenamed Denver, their strength is in GPUs. You can see that in their performance numbers (based on tablet form factor power and wattage) compared to the Apple 8X and Tegra K1.

In the Tegra X1, Nvidia has successfully taken their latest Maxwell GPU architecture and integrated it into their SoC. This 256-core GPU is currently the most powerful we have ever seen in a mobile SoC, beating most of the competition by more than double in some benchmarks. It also supports LPDDR4, which is the latest memory standard, giving it more capacity as well as bandwidth and power savings. This SoC is most poised for tablet and other high resolution embedded applications, including cars where Nvidia seems to be strongest with their mobile SoCs right now. Tegra X1 may help them regain some tablet share, but it will most likely be directly related to how much power it will consume compared to Qualcomm and Samsung. Nvidia also has their own LTE modems, branded as Icera with their i500 being the latest modem they make. They have successfully integrated their Icera modems into some of their older SoCs, but their focus appears to have shifted away from their mobile modem and smartphone business as the Icera i500 is 2 or 3 generations behind the competition in terms of feature sets.

Qualcomm is also out with their own 64-bit ARM processor, the Snapdragon 810. This SoC’s CPU configuration is actually very similar to Nvidia’s and Samsung’s in that it also utilizes eight 64-bit ARM cores in a similar big.LITTLE configuration. However, Qualcomm’s own SoC has their own DSP, LTE modem, GPU, and fixed function controllers all of which are developed in-house. The Snapdragon 810 utilizes the company’s latest Adreno 430 GPU which is without a doubt the companies fastest GPUs and still one of the top competitors for performance. The Snapdragon 810, like the Tegra X1 also supports LPDDR4 which has the same benefits as one would see that come with LPDDR4.

While Qualcomm’s biggest advantage is in their modems, they have strength in processors, DSPs and GPUs that keep them competitive. Qualcomm’s ability to stitch the heterogeneous solution together with hardware and software is unparalleled. I do expect them to introduce a custom 64-bit core this year as they positioned their ARM A72-based SnapDragon 4XX and 6XX SoCs in the mid-range, leaving them space for the custom-core 8XX product at the top. Their custom CPU could put them back on top in terms of CPUs. Their current Snapdragon 810 is their fastest mobile SoC ever, though, with a Snapdragon X10 LTE modem capable of LTE speeds in excess of 450 Mbps while both Apple and Nvidia either completely lack modems or have modems that are generations older.

Samsung Electronics

Samsung’s most recently announced SoC is their 64-bit Exynos 7 Octa 7420 chip, which is manufactured using Samsung’s own 14nm FinFET manufacturing process, something that Samsung Electronics has a leg up on all of their ARM-based competitors. Most of their competitors in the ARM SoC space are currently on 20nm and as a result may have a slight clock speed and power disadvantage versus Samsung Electronics, but process node isn’t everything. Samsung’s Exynos 7 Octa 7420 also utilizes four 64-bit ARM A57 CPU cores along with four ARM 53 CPU cores to give it a big.LITTLE configuration like Nvidia and Qualcomm. Samsung utilizes ARM’s Mali graphics processors, specifically the Mali T760 GPU, which is currently ARM’s fastest shipping GPU. Unsurprisingly, the Exynos 7 Octa 7420 also supports LPDDR4 like many of the other ARM competitors.

In Samsung’s case, although not part of the SoC, does have their own discrete modems that they have been working on, which should be considered as part of the mobility equation. In tests versus modems from Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm modems provided up to 20% better throughput, between 5-12% better power consumption, and exhibited excellent antenna matching characteristics. SoC performance is yet unknown, but many rumors are suggesting double digit improvements in power and performance over the Exynos Octa 5 series. Samsung’s primary markets for these processors are their smartphones, tablets and TVs and they only manufacture these SoCs for their own products, for now. They still do source Qualcomm SoCs and modems as well as Intel modems for a broad array of their products.

The Exynos Octa 7420 has the most unknowns of any chip in this lineup as its architecture hasn’t been disclosed, hasn’t been benchmarked, and is on a new and risky 14nm FinFet Samsung process. Hopefully we will get some of that information Sunday in Barcelona where I will be attending the announcement

Intel

Last but not least is Intel, who is the latest comer to the mobile SoC game but also with some of the deepest pockets and the most process and transistor technology experience. Much like the others, Intel’s SoCs are also 64-bit, as they were some of the first with 64-bit SoCs after Apple. But since Intel’s design center only recently has been focused on low power and just recently acquired LTE modem capabilities, they have found themselves challenged to keep up with the competition in terms of handset design wins and sales. I must note that they did garner between 10-15% tablet market share, albeit at a large cost.

Intel’s latest SoC is the 14nm 64-bit Cherry Trail FinFet SoC which should feature four of Intel’s latest custom Airmont CPU cores and 16 GPU ‘units’ which is ‘four times the previous generations’ Intel GPUs. However, Intel has indicated that they are still some time from launching Cherry Trail in products as they are expected sometime this half of the year. I hope to get more information at MWC, where I will be attending Intel events and keynotes. Intel also has their own discrete modem technology with their Cat. 6 LTE capable 726X series of modems, Intel has decided not to integrate their modem capabilities into their SoCs and they still remain discrete parts like Samsung’s and Nvidia’s. Performance is yet unknown for Intel’s Cherry Trail SoCs, however the expectation is that it should deliver significant improvements in power consumption and GPU performance compared to their 22nm Bay Trail processors. Intel’s target market with these SoCs appear to be tablets, even though they still are struggling to get any significant SoC design wins inside leading smartphones, but that is what their China investments are all about. We will know more in Barcelona.

Wrapping Up…

There are a lot of similarities between some of the leading mobile SoCs out there today and there is without a doubt quite a bit of use of 64-bit CPU technology and a lot of that is coming from ARM. Apple by far has the most powerful CPUs today. Some companies like Nvidia and Qualcomm do have their own custom ARM cores, rather than what they’re currently using in the A57 and A53 combo, but their iterations haven’t quite reached that point yet. In fact, from both Nvidia and Qualcomm, we suspect that we’ll see even more powerful SoCs later this year, as should we from Apple.

Nvidia currently has the most powerful mobile graphics. Qualcomm has the most powerful modems, DSP, and hardware and software integration. I’m expecting good stuff from Intel’s Cherry Trail soon. Samsung’s Exynos is the most unclear as there have been no architectural disclosures, benchmarks, or phones or tablets announced, but what they could do with 14nm FinFet is really interesting. This will be an exciting Mobile World Congress for sure.

It’s an exciting time in mobile SoC’s!