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Qualcomm draws quad-core Snapdragon roadmap

MobileNews
, 15 Sep 2011News

For many attendees at this year's Innovation Qualcomm event in Istanbul, the highlight of the day was product management veep Christiano Amon's keynote speech in which he outlined the company's roadmap for next-generation Snapdragon processors.

Snapdragon is Qualcomm's highly integrated system-on-chip offering for the mobile market, packing high-performance ARM-based processing cores and Adreno graphics hardware next to 3G - and LTE - modems, Wi-Fi radios, and GPS and GLONASS receivers. It's a product that has proven popular with the company's customers - and Amon believes he knows why.

"The cellphone is the number one technology platform, but also it's becoming a general purpose computing platform that you carry around with you 100 per cent of the time," Amon told attendees during the 'teaching granny to suck eggs" portion of the speech. "The tablet is a much more portable, much more personal device, and it's going to propagate even to the television. It's a window to provide entertainment and interactivity, and that can take over some of the role and the function of what was once the family PC."

It's this drive to imbue portable devices with ever-increasing power for a more demanding populace which, Amon argues, has been key to the success of the Snapdragon platform. The company's current generation product, the Snapdragon S3, scales two processing cores to 1.5GHz and adds powerful Adreno GPU technology to an SoC design which has found a home in devices including the Motorola Xoom Android tablet and HP's short-lived TouchPad webOS tablet.

"We will enable an entirely new family of devices for the industry," said Amon. "That requires a different architecture - you have to have a system on a chip. You need to provide all this functionality on a single chip. We have the integration of the hardware and the integration of the software. We needed to create the technologies that were not available in the industry to deliver on our vision - we were originally a modem company," the man who now sits atop one of the biggest fabless semiconductor companies in the world reminded attendees.

"We introduced the first synchronous dual-core system, where each core can have a different clock speed. With quad-core, we're changing the architecture to provide quad-core performance without sacrificing power," claimed Amon, referring to Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon S4 designs. "We can engineer the optimal solution so that you can manage the entire system by one single design point.

While it might be true that Qualcomm was the first to market with a synchronous dual-core chip design, there's something Amon forgot to mention: it was beaten to the first ARM-based dual-core SoC design by Nvidia, after the company's rapid twelve-month development cycle caught Qualcomm - and the rest of the mobile processor industry - napping. Amon has a solution to keep Qualcomm competitive in the future, though, and it's a refrain we've heard from the company before: integration.

"We have full connectivity integrated into our chipsets - GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G/LTE, crowed Amon. "The important thing is as the device transforms into this general purpose computing device, we're doing all this without compromising on the core characteristics of a cellphone - it has to be small, and the battery has to last the entire day or more. We have to provide innovation to bring all that computing power with all the characteristics of mobile. You have to provide the same performance of computing devices today without compromising on size or battery life. When the device OEMs look for a semiconductor partner, they look for someone who can offer as much technoloogy integrated as possible."

Qualcomm Snapdragon Roadmap, 2011

Qualcomm's next-generation Snapdragon, the S4 series, is built with this in mind, but Amon was quick to point out that it will be competive against rival quad-core chips on performance, too. The specification offered during the keynote suggested a chip built on a 28nm process and capable of scaling from a single core to a quad-core superchip, along with clock speeds as high as 2.5GHz and dual- or quad-core Adreno graphics.

Integration and performance at the high end will certainly help the S4 series compete, but Amon has another trick up his sleeve. "We have the intention to turn every phone into a smartphone, to bring connectivity to everyone. Qualcomm's entry level chipsets are the only chipsets at that price point to provide full Flash support. We don't offer one or two chips - we offer a full array of products," he explained, pointing out that having chips at a wide variety of prices is key to chief executive Paul Jacob's long-term vision of providing the technology for a $50 smartphone.

The question on everyone's lips, of course, was availability. With Nvidia expected to launch its quad-core Tegra 3 'Kal-El' chip - to be followed up by 'Grey', Nvidia's first SoC to include a Qualcomm-style integrated modem for smartphone use - timing will be everything for Snapdragon's continued success. "The first quad-core S4 is due at the end of this year, with the first devices due early 2012," Amon explained, but refused to be pushed on a firmer timeline.

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