Motorola’s new X8 ARM chip: Underpinning the always-on future of Android

Motorola has traditionally used ARM chips designed by other companies. Motorola simply chose the chip best suited to its devices and bought them. With the newly announced Droid devices coming on the US network Verizon, Motorola is doing things differently with some custom silicon. The Motorola X8 is a custom ARM system-on-a-chip (SoC) that the company is calling an 8-core Mobile Computing System designed for Android.

The X8 enables always-on technologies for Google Now and could be hugely important in Android devices going forward. With Google backing Motorola’s efforts, it could even affect how Android itself is developed.

What is the X8?

Motorola has stressed at every juncture that the X8 is an octa-core chip, but it isn’t even an eight-core chip in the meagre way the Exynos 5 Octa is. The Motorola X8’s basic configuration includes two CPUs, four GPU cores, and two additional low-power cores for always-on technologies.

By the unspoken rules of processor naming, this is a dual-core chip. We don’t usually count GPU cores or co-processors when determining how to refer to a particular SoC. If we did, the Tegra 4 would be a 77-core chip.

What’s interesting about the design of the standard components is where Motorola went for the intellectual property. Most companies that want a piece of custom silicon for a mobile device go straight to ARM to license the Cortex application processor, then pair that with a Mali or PowerVR GPU. Not Motorola – Google’s new subsidiary went to Qualcomm to get a piece of the Krait ARM-compatible architecture.

Qualcomm licenses the ARM instruction set, but designs its own CPU cores for the Snapdragon SoC. Motorola refused to say who is manufacturing the chip, but it seems likely Qualcomm itself is behind the process. It’s unlikely the company would license Krait technology to another chip maker. The two Krait cores (of the type used in the S4 Pro line) in the Motorola X8 are clocked at 1.7GHz.

Motorola says the four GPU cores are running at 400MHz, delivering a 3.2 million pixel fill rate with 16 shader units. Those specs with the associated Krait CPUs indicate that the GPU is an Adreno 320, which lines up with previous leaks which named a dual-core MSM8960T variant as the chip being used in Motorola’s upcoming Android devices. The X8 looks to be very similar to that chip, but there’s the matter of that custom silicon.

The two final cores in Moto’s questionable eight-count are a local natural language processor (L-NLP) and a contextual computing processor (CCP). From a purely hardware perspective, these might not be separate cores in the most accurate sense. Rather, we may be looking at two sides of the same coin – an always-on sensor hub that runs in an always-on state with components to listen for audio cues and organise data.

The CCP is billed as adept at processing sensor data from the device and using it in the always-on display features of the new Motorola handsets. L-NLP monitors the microphone input, noise cancellation, and runs speech recognition to make the phone a hands-free device.

It all comes down to this – you say “Okay Google Now,” and the phone will listen to you even if it’s locked and asleep. It’s neat, but that’s not all.

What the X8 could mean for Android

In the wake of the new Droids, it’s reasonable to suspect the much-anticipated Moto X will also be running the X8 ARM chip. For all the talk about Google and Motorola being run separately, it looks like the Moto X is going to be a very Google-focused device. Google has access to all the intellectual property Motorola is leveraging in its new custom silicon, so it definitely has an interest in using those features to improve the core Google Now product.

On any currently available Android phone, even Nexus devices, your voice interaction with Google Now requires you to hit a button or perform a gesture. The data it uses to bring you all those predictive search cards mostly comes from the text you’re inputting through Gmail, Search, and other services. Always-on audio has the potential to make Google Now much more powerful.

In fact, most of the voice recognition activities happening on Android are taking place in the cloud. Being able to dedicate hardware to the task locally could make Google Now faster and open a completely new avenue for always-on features. Additionally, some Android phones have battery life issues, so the hardware processing could help conserve juice.

Imagine that a Motorola device running the X8 is sitting in your pocket. It’s listening to the outside world with that low-power, always-on language processor. When it hears the trigger phrase, it will spring into action, but what about if it hears something else? The device could just as easily be listening for the word “pizza” in conversation at the same time. Then if you pop open Google Now, the phone suggests a local pizza place. This could be the next step in the predictive search that has made Google Now so interesting. Is it a little creepy? Sure, but also maybe worth it.

So far, there is just this one chip with the always-on L-NLP technology, but it’s grafted onto a modified Snapdragon. There’s no reason it couldn’t be built into a different product later. In the short term, this is definitely a Motorola/Google differentiating feature, but the company could license the always-on silicon to fundamentally change the way more Android devices work. Completely ignoring the privacy concerns for a moment, a phone that is always listening and making the experience more personal fits perfectly with the direction Android is already going.