Chipset vendors' challenges multiply amid smartphone upheaval

Chipset vendors are being forced to release new designs at a faster pace and make their chips more versatile than ever before. Demands for increasingly sophisticated, power-efficient smartphones are placing intense strains on semiconductor companies, particularly those supplying applications processors.

And though great challenges remain--on software integration, power consumption and other areas--chip vendors are largely meeting the demand to stay ahead of the curve, analysts said.

"This generation of chipsets--especially for handheld solutions--is so over-engineered, it's not funny," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat. 

Innovations around the core

Most companies that are working on application processors in the mobile market use architecture from ARM Holdings and then innovate based on that core architecture (though Intel's Atom-based Moorestown platform may stand as a serious competitor).

One of the key advances in this area is tremendous boosts in pure processing power. A year ago, most smartphone processors did not come close to reaching 1 GHz in processing speed. Now, partially due to the success of Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor, 1 GHz is becoming a benchmark.

"What we're seeing is performance increases," said James Bruce, ARM's U.S. mobile segment manager. "And it's not being driven by one single application per se. Consumers are doing many applications at once." Bruce said added that ARM's partners are innovating by adding silicon around the general purpose processor.  

"They're not trying to put everything onto the processor," he said. "So you can offload things onto much more power-efficient hardware where it makes sense." Semiconductor companies can, for example, add hardware accelerators for graphics, imaging and sensor technologies, all of which combine to allow for applications such as augmented reality.

Riding this wave is Qualcomm's Snapdragon solution, which is unique from its competitors because it combines both the applications processor and the necessary modem technology in a single, integrated solution. However, despite some high-profile devices carrying the chipset, including Google's Nexus One, Snapdragon is not on many commercial devices. Qualcomm said it expects to expand to additional devices, and boost its processing speed beyond 1 GHz this year.

Separately, Texas Instruments introduced its new OMAP 4 application processor at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February, and, like many companies in the industry, is continuing its strategy of developing multi-core processors to both reduce power consumption and boost processing capabilities. The chipset, which is sampling right now, leverages two 1 GHz processors to deliver rich mobile experiences like contextual browsers.

Robert Tolbert, TI's OMAP platform marketing manager, said the trend toward multi-core processing allows chipset vendors to "add more granularity into the power management and architecture features of the device." This includes the ability to turn off video and graphics accelerators when they are not in use, or to scale and up down the general purpose processor when the need arrives.  

Nvidia, another ARM partner, is taking a similar approach, and is trying to parlay its expertise in PC graphics into the mobile market. The company's Tegra 2 processor, which is not yet available in mainstream products, is also built around purpose-optimized cores, which gives the company "tremendous headroom on visual processing and the computational power you need to solve those problems," according to Bill Henry, the director of Tegra product management at Nvidia.

"When you offload those things from the CPU onto the GPU, you get an order of magnitude improvement in performance per watt," Henry said.

"A lot of what the consumer actually sees is driven by the software that you put on top of these processors," said Francis Sideco, the principal wireless analyst at research firm iSuppli. Chipset vendors are "bumping up processing capability to deal with the more complex software."

Changing market dynamics

Nvidia's philosophy of taking the PC approach to mobile--having an "annual cadence of coming out with a new processor," in Henry's words--is creating more and more pressure to iterate faster and be more versatile.

In-Stat's McGregor said that historically, chipset vendors have tried to design chips that can be used for multiple years--but the new pace of software development and the hardware enhancements necessary to keep up with them means that they are "going to have to start spinning these chips on a more regular cadence. Cell phones leapfrog each other every six months."

All of this acceleration and innovation is a good thing for the industry, said Stuart Robinson, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics. However, the capabilities of the chipsets might outstrip the practical applications of smartphones--at least right now. For instance, he said, chipset vendors boasting of their ability to deliver high-definition video decoding and streaming might not find an audience. "I think there is a slight mismatch in the capabilities of what you can do on a handset and what you want to watch on a handset," he said, adding, "It's almost a solution looking for a problem." 

Raj Talluri, vice president of product management for Qualcomm's CDMA unit, disagreed. "I think today the hardware is not quite there yet," he said. "There's still a lot of technology that we're packing in."

Hovering over all of this are Intel's designs on the mobile market. Intel has started to shift its whole "paradigm on power consumption," toward mobile, McGregor said. Robinson said Intel still has not achieved the kind of power consumption that ARM has for its solutions, but that it is rapidly advancing and will continue to improve its performance with its forthcoming Medfield processor.

"We still don't how Intel will play out, but it has potential to upset ARM apple cart," said Satish Menon, an analyst at silicon research firm Forward Concepts.

Challenges remain

In the here and now, despite the innovations, chipset vendors face enormous challenges--as they willingly concede. "Power is paramount," said ARM's Bruce. "A smartphone has limited use to a consumer unless they know you can get a decent day's use."

Another factor vendors must prepare for is the transition to LTE, which could drive demand for data and video--and the power-management technologies to handle that consumption.

A separate challenge noted by both analysts and chipset vendors is the struggle to "future-proof" designs so that companies can react quickly to changes in the market. For example, players will need to accurately predict when technologies like 3-D video are going to become popular on handsets.

Finally, users' familiarity with PC computing is pushing smartphone vendors to provide similar functions on mobile devices--functions like multitasking. To meet those demands, Qualcomm's Talluri said chipset vendors will need to spend much more time listening to and working with operating system platform companies like Google, as well as third-party application developers.

The result? Chipset vendors will have to race to stay ahead of the curve. "It's like making thousands of decisions, and after making those thousands of decisions, hoping that you have a competitive product," said In-Stat's McGregor.