Mobile World Congress goes ga-ga for chips

February 27, 2012 // 12:09 p.m.

Tags: #arm #atom #cortex-a15 #cortex-a9 #exynos #huawei #intel #k3v2 #orange #system-on-chip

As you might expect at the start of the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, handset makers have been falling over themselves to have their device seen as the next big thing. More interesting, however, are the somewhat quieter announcements from the companies supplying the silicon.

British chip giant ARM, which supplies the designs and intellectual property behind the overwhelming majority of smartphone and tablet processors available today, is of course a major winner this year. The company's designs continue to dominate, and while the majority of the announcements this year centred around the Cortex-A15 'Eagle' it had a little something in store for those still planning products around the last-generation Cortex-A9 design.

In partnership with silicon baker GlobalFoundries, ARM has developed a 'processor optimisation pack,' or POP, which will allow the Cortex-A9 designs to be pushed to 2GHz and potentially beyond.

'As consumer demand for high-performance, energy-efficient mobile devices increases, GlobalFoundries and ARM are lowering the risk for customers by delivering optimised Cortex-A9 cores on a proven 28nm SoC [System-on-Chip] process,' explained Kevin Meyer, vice president at Globalfoundries, of the deal. 'This latest ARM physical IP solution for our 28nm-SLP process delivers industry-leading performance and energy-efficiency, while also decreasing time to market for customers' latest mobile products.'

That's quite a big deal: the majority of Cortex-A9 based processors, including Samsung's Exynos chips and Apple's A-series, have petered out at around 1.5GHz. A boost to 2GHz, coupled with little to no increase in power draw, will help budget handsets compete with the higher end units moving to the Cortex-A15.

The Cortex-A9 also forms the heart of Samsung's new Exynos chip, a quad-core part running at 1.5GHz and designed as a direct competitor to Nvidia's Tegra 3 'Kal-El' chip. Featuring a new power-saving mode which could cut idle and single-threaded power draw by as much as 25 per cent over previous chips despite doubling the cores, the Exynos will likely form the heart of Samsung's as-yet unannounced Galaxy S III Android-powered smartphone.

Other manufacturers have been looking to the future, with chip maker Qualcomm announcing the Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC. Based on a customised version of ARM's Cortex-A15 IP known as 'Krait,' the Snapdragon S4 Pro combines four high-performance ARM-based processing cores with an upgraded Adreno 320 graphics processing subsystem. The result, Qualcomm claims, is support for higher resolution displays including tablets featuring 1920x1080 Full HD panels. The Adreno 320 also adds improved OpenCL support, allowing manufacturers to tap into GPGPU computing to add new functionality to devices including post-processing focusing with light-field camera technology.

'As a result of strong customer demand for Snapdragon S4 processors, we've added a new Pro version of MSM8960 to continue delivering the highest performing mobile processors in the industry,' explained Cristiano Amon, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm, during the MWC announcement. 'By delivering the S4 Pro processor in 2012, we are fulfilling our promise that Snapdragon processors will remain the industry's barometer for excellence in mobile computing while helping our customers bring the most innovative smartphones and tablets to market.'

Meanwhile, Chinese original design manufacturer Huawei announced its own system-on-chip design which it claims can beat rivals on almost all counts. As the company looks to ditch its ODM roots and become a household name in its own right, following in the footsteps of rival HTC, it's clearly understood that having a unique selling point is going to be important.

Dubbed the K3V2, the new chip boasts four 64-bit ARM-based processing cores running at either 1.2GHz or 1.5GHz, 16 individual graphical processors and a proprietary power management system that boasts a power draw some 30 per cent lower than the likes of Nvidia's rival Tegra 3 design. Despite this, benchmark results released by Huawei claim that the Ascend D Quad, the first smartphone to feature the chip, boasts double the graphical performance and a 49 per cent boost in pure-CPU processing over its nearest rivals the Galaxy Nexus and the Transformer Prime.

Finally, Intel had an announcement of its own at the show: the Atom SoC designs it showed off back at the Consumer Electronics Show are coming to the UK courtesy Orange, which will be launching an own-brand Android-based device. Currently unnamed, the handset will include Intel's Atom Z2460 processor and XMM 6260 communications platform, 16GB of storage, a 4.03in display and HSPA+ support.

At launch, the device will feature Android 2.3 'Gingerbread,' with an upgrade to Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' promised shortly after. Although no pricing has yet been confirmed, it's a major win for Intel. Sadly, the company still has a long way to go as it looks to eat away at ARM's dominance of an increasingly profitable market.

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