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The big surprise of CES 2013: Mobile chipsets

One of the things that surprised me the most at last week's CES was just how many new mobile processors were announced. I'm used to Intel talking about its next generation of desktop and laptop chips at the January show (which it did to a limited extent), but typically mobile processor announcements are held over until Mobile World Congress (MWC) in February. This year, though, not only Intel, but Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Samsung chose CES as the venue to talk about their next generation of mobile chips aimed at smartphones and tablets.

Nvidia releases Tegra 4

Nvidia got the week started by introducing its long awaited Tegra 4 processor (see the above image), codenamed "Wayne," along with its i500 soft modem.

CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced the Tegra 4, calling it the world's fastest mobile processor, with its 72 GPU cores supplementing the four ARM Cortex-A15 CPU cores. Actually, like the quad-core Tegra 3, the chip will have an extra core (another A15) that uses a lower-power transistor design; the main cores can be turned off when not needed to preserve battery power while the four cores work together with the graphics to deliver performance when it is needed.

Despite some naysayers, Huang said there is a need for mobile devices to be faster. Unsurprisingly, he showed a number of games, stressing the company's gaming heritage and its TegraZone Android store for games. But in addition, he demonstrated how a tablet can load web pages faster with the new chip (albeit in optimal conditions with a direct connection to the server), as well as "computational photography" where the chip is used to make camera features faster for things such as high dynamic range (HDR) photos and video. Huang said Tegra 4 is powerful enough to support 4K output.

The LTE modem is worth noting, not only because it is Nvidia's first LTE modem, but because it uses a software-defined radio. The concept, which was developed by Icera before Nvidia purchased the company, allows software to change how the modem behaves. For instance, the modem can change which bands it supports in different countries, or the way it implements beam forming in a crowded city compared to a rural area. The changes are mostly in firmware that can be updated over the air.

Huang said the concept of modem processors within a "soft modem" is akin to using programmable shaders instead of fixed-function devices within a graphics processor. He said it uses 40 per cent of the area of a conventional die.

The first product with a Tegra 4 should be Nvidia's new Project Shield handheld gaming system, which is expected to be out in the second quarter. The Shield runs Android and has a 5in high resolution display, gaming controls, and the ability to play TegraZone apps and to connect to the network to play PC applications. Vizio also showed an Android tablet running the processor, and it seems likely we'll see more companies using the processor at MWC.

Qualcomm's quad-core "Born Mobile"

Qualcomm, which has in many respects been the leader in mobile processors, got the coveted first keynote spot and used it to highlight its concept of "Born Mobile." In the somewhat controversial presentation, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs talked about how Qualcomm has shipped over 11 billion wireless chips and is part of over 500 mobile devices.

He brought Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer out on stage (Ballmer having delivered the pre-show keynote the last several years) to show off Windows RT devices (including the Samsung ATIV and Dell XPS 10) and Windows Phone 8 handsets (Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC Windows Phone 8X) that use Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors.

More importantly, Jacobs announced the Snapdragon 600 and 800 series of mobile processors, saying the 800 is "the most advanced wireless processor ever built." Qualcomm has developed its own cores, known as Krait, based on the ARM architecture, and has its own graphics which it calls Adreno. The Snapdragon 800 will offer four Krait cores running at up to 2.3GHz, along with support for LTE Advanced (the next generation of LTE, promising even faster connectivity by aggregating multiple channels) and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Overall, Jacobs said, the 800 can offer performance 75 per cent better than the current Snapdragon S4 Pro. There are 60 designs in the works based on the Snapdragon 600 and 800 Series processors, and the first ones will be available in the second half of 2013.

Snapdragon 800 features include support for higher-end gaming, augmented reality (through Qualcomm's Vuforia platform), receiving and playing back content at UltraHD (4K) resolution, and capturing 4K content. Such content will drive data demand, and Jacobs pushed the idea of small cells to help all that go more smoothly.

Samsung goes 8 cores

Not to be outdone, Samsung used its keynote on the Wednesday to introduce its Exynos 5 Octa processor, which it described as the world's first 8-core processor.

With a theme of "Mobilising Possibility," Dr Stephen Woo, president of Samsung Electronics' System LSI Business, discussed a number of products, including application processors, SSDs, advanced DRAM, and flexible displays. Most of all, he seemed focused on the new processor. (For star power, it went with former president Bill Clinton, who endorsed the company's charitable foundation).

The Exynos 5 Octa is the first to use ARM's big.LITTLE architecture, and Woo was joined onstage by ARM CEO Warren East to discuss the architecture. The Exynos pairs four larger ARM Cortex-A15 cores, which get used for processor-intensive tasks, with four smaller Cortex-A7 cores, used when the device has relatively small needs. Woo said the new processor can offer up to 70 per cent better energy efficiency compared with the current Exynos 4 Quad. The demos here focused mainly on gaming.

Samsung, Nvidia, and Qualcomm seem to be leading the ARM application processor field, but have taken very different approaches with their three new processors. Nvidia has gone with four main cores and then a similarly complex core for low-power. Qualcomm has four custom cores, but with the ability to scale each up and down. Samsung has taken the big.LITTLE approach with four big and four little cores. I suspect we'll learn more about the differences over the next couple of months.

Other ARM processor makers

While Nvidia, Qualcomm and Samsung got most of the attention, there were many other ARM-based processors represented at the show.

ST-Ericsson was pushing its "ModAp" concept, which combines an integrated LTE module with the firm's application processor on a single die. Its new product, called the NovaThor L8580, runs at up to 2.5GHz and is based on four ARM Cortex-A9s and Imagination's PowerVR SGX544 GPU running at 600MHz. In this architecture, each core can run at either high or low power, depending on processing needs.

The company says it will have "unsurpassed performance with unequalled power efficiency," and touts an unusual manufacturing strategy, based on STMicroelectronics' 28nm FD-SOI process. As a result, the company says it runs the CPU 35 per cent faster and multimedia 20 per cent faster, while consuming less energy. This is said to be sampling now.

Broadcom was pushing its integrated solutions for more mid-range smartphones. Robert Rango (above), executive vice president of the mobile and wireless group, explained how its 1.2GHz 28155 processor, including dual Cortex-A9 cores plus its VideoCore graphics technology, is now powering a number of new devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Grand. This isn't leading-edge technology – it is produced at 40nm as opposed to the 28nm most of the leading-edge designs incorporate – but it seems quite impressive for inexpensive mobile devices.

Huawei introduced two new large smartphones, the 5in Ascend D2 and the 6.1in Ascend Mate, both based on the company's own 1.5GHz quad-core chipset.

Intel pushes x86 for low-end smartphones

On the x86 side, Intel started its CES press conference by stressing how the company is making Android applications run on the x86 platform, and announcing the "Lexington" Atom processor Z2420 with XMM 6265, aimed at value smartphones for emerging markets.

Mike Bell, general manager of Intel’s mobile and communications group, showed off a reference design (above) for a 3.5in phone with a 320 x 480 resolution display and an HSPA+ modem. He said the new chip, which can run at up to 1.2GHz, has SGX 540 graphics, which allows it to display 1080p 30 fps videos. It also supports a 1.3-megapixel front camera plus a 5-megapixel rear camera capable of taking up to 7 frames per second. That's good for emerging markets, but not enough to power phones aimed at the US and European markets this year. He said Intel has design wins with Acer, Safaricom, and Lava, but said details will be coming later in the quarter.

More importantly, the company will soon be releasing "Clover Trail +," a new 32nm dual-core Atom aimed at performance smartphones which will offer twice the CPU performance of the existing "Medfield" Atom chips. He confirmed that this will be followed by a 22nm Atom based on a new microarchitecture later this year.

Overall, we saw a lot of different approaches to mobile processors. I'm sure we'll see more at Mobile World Congress next month, and I will be interested to learn more about the differences among the processors. What will be just as interesting and important is seeing which phone makers support which processors. But in any case, if you thought today's phones were fast, tomorrow's should be even better.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.