MediaTek aims to go head-to-head with Qualcomm in high-end chips using Helio X20 platform

MediaTek is unveiling a new chipset platform designed to compete with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) at the high end of the smartphone market. MediaTek has been steadily moving up-market and gearing more of its silicon toward devices in the premier tier after breaking into the market supplying chipsets for entry-level devices.

The platform, called the Helio X20, uses what is known as a "tri-cluster" architecture and 10 different processing cores. Like having multiple gears on a car, the tri-cluster architecture lets the chipset platform scale up and down in terms of speed, depending on what the phone is doing. The CPU consists of one cluster of two ARM Cortex-A72 cores (running at 2.5 GHz for top performance) and two clusters of four ARM Cortex-A53 cores (one running at 2 GHz for medium processing power and one running at 1.4 GHz for light activities).

For example, in the main Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) app, when a user launches the app and then scrolls through status update, that would take advantage of the medium cluster. When a user pauses their scrolling, and the screen is idle, the phone would power down to the lowest cluster, and if someone is watching video on Facebook the phone will switch to using the highest-performing cluster.

MediaTek's "CorePilot 3.0" heterogeneous computing technology moves and switches the gears. The company claims its new platform provides up to a 30 percent reduction of power consumption compared with conventional dual-cluster architectures. The platform also sports an integrated, low-power sensor processor, the ARM Cortex-M4, to support always-on applications such as MP3 playback and voice activation. That improves battery performance even further, MediaTek said.

Further, the chipset supports Category 6 LTE, for up to 300 Mbps theoretical peak downlink speeds, and two-carrier carrier aggregation.

Mohit Bhushan, MediaTek's vice president and general manager of U.S. corporate marketing, said in an interview with FierceWireless that the Helio X20 is designed to compete with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820, which Qualcomm unveiled earlier this year and is designed for 2016 flagship phones.

"In some areas the 820 will do better," he said. "In some areas we will out-compete the 820." The 820 has a higher-performance modem that supports Category 9 LTE and three-carrier carrier aggregation, Bhushan noted. He also said the 820 supports 4K display of video. MediaTek considers some of those features too much engineering at higher price for not a lot of difference to the end customer.

"We keep things simple," he said, adding that MediaTek wants to bring high-performance but keep costs under control.  "Let's put great technologies in but not overdesign," he said.

Research firm Strategy Analytics recently reported that Qualcomm, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), MediaTek, Spreadtrum and Samsung LSI captured the top five revenue spots in the global smartphone applications processor market in 2014. Qualcomm once again topped the market with 52 percent revenue share, followed by Apple with 18 percent revenue share and MediaTek with 14 percent revenue share.

Bhushan said the Helio X20 will be available to OEMs in September and likely in commercial products in December. He added that MediaTek is taking the platform to carrier labs, including U.S. carriers, with testing starting in September.

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) has certified MediaTek's LTE modems, and MediaTek's first U.S. LTE device is the Alcatel OneTouch Pop Astro, which T-Mobile launched at the end of April.

"We have proven our value," Bhushan said. "We have been in conversations with all of the other operators. We didn't have carrier aggregation and Cat 6 [LTE], which is a must-have for Verizon and AT&T."

"Carriers are keen to onboard us in their labs," he said. "I believe we are in a much better spot."

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