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Chinese chipmaking upstarts are preparing to take on Qualcomm and Intel

If you follow developments in the Western smartphone and tablet market, you’ll be at least passingly familiar with the big names in the industry. Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Nvidia are the major ARM developers, while Intel’s recent Medfield, Clover Trail, and freshly unveiled Silvermont products offer an increasingly significant challenge to the ARM tetrarchy. AMD has its own plans as well, although these are largely confined to the W8 tablet space.

Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia account for the lion’s share of the high-end mobile market, but they’re not the only players. Two other fabless design manufacturers, AllWinner and MediaTek, are increasingly hungry for a piece of the lucrative mobile pie.

MediaTek moves to challenge

MediaTek was founded in 1997 as a spinoff from Taiwan’s United Microelectronics Corporation, or UMC. It started off as a controller chip manufacturer for CD and DVD drives but has pushed into mobile devices and wireless products. Total sales for 2012 in pounds sterling amounted to £2.2 billion — and while that’s not in Samsung or Qualcomm territory, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

The company has recently begun shipping several higher profile products, including its MT6572 SoC. The less-than-sexy name cloaks a dual-core Cortex-A7 SoC at 1.2GHz with an integrated Wi-Fi radio, Bluetooth, GPS, and FM radio tuner all on board.

This is MediaTek’s second Cortex-A7 product – the company launched a quad-core Cortex-A7 SoC late in 2012. One reason the chip stands out is that MediaTek has eschewed ARM’s big.LITTLE strategy to explicitly focus on the little end of the equation. ARM has mostly positioned the Cortex-A7 as a low-power companion for the Cortex-A15 and a way to improve total device efficiency by using a svelte low-power core as much as possible. MediaTek believes the Cortex-A7 has enough horsepower to drive a lower-end smartphone on its own, and has designed chips on 28nm technology to help make that happen.

MediaTek’s idea for these chips is to create a market around lower-end smartphones whose users care about battery life but still want an acceptable level of performance. The Cortex-A7, meanwhile, should be up to the challenge. Benchmarks of the quad-core version point to an acceptably snappy chip that trades some synthetic performance for less power consumption – exactly what MediaTek is targeting. If the dual-core variant does so as well, it could be strong competition for lower-end Snapdragons and Intel’s Atom.

The high-end quad-core variant, the MT6589T, recently broke cover and is proving to be a potent competitor for slightly older smartphones. Recently published benchmarks show the chip edging out the HTC One X (the Nvidia Tegra 3 version) and surpassing the Google Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 in the AnTuTu benchmark. That’s only two tests, to be sure, but the Taiwanese vendor is clearly capable of fielding hardware that can compete at more than the bottom end of the market.

Allwinner amps up

Allwinner is a much younger company. Founded in 2007, it employs some 500 people, almost all of whom are engineers. Unlike MediaTek, it’s a mainland China company. It’s been making waves for several years, starting with its A1X processor series. Popular US online tech retailer Newegg has a hefty list of Allwinner-equipped products, and while plenty of them are substandard schlock in the $80-$100 (£50-£65) range, there’s an increasing number of devices pushing into the $150-$200 (£100-£130) bracket.

Allwinner’s latest A31 processors are still based on 40nm technology, but the quad-core Cortex-A7 designs should help limit total power consumption. In late March, the company announced its A31s SoCs, which are designed for so-called “phablets” – phones that range from 5in to 7in in screen size. Equally as interesting to consumers and investors alike is that the company reportedly sells its SoCs for as little as $8-$10 (£5 to £6.50) each. That’s half of what Nvidia has reportedly charged for Tegra 3, and substantially less than Intel.

Devices like the upcoming Onda tablet might look like iPads, but they aren’t. Anyone arguing that these products are going to take a near-term chomp into Samsung, Qualcomm, Nvidia, or Intel is indulging in flights of fancy. Less fanciful is the fact that the ultra-cheap Android tablet market is growing up fast. When I tested the Walgreen’s Maylong tablet in December 2010, I was anything but impressed. The system used a resistive touchscreen, a 533MHz ARM9 core, 256MB of RAM, and 2GB of NAND flash. Even back then, “unimpressive” was an understatement.

Are we going to see these products launching in the UK or US any time soon? For now, the answer is “no.” They’re not ready. Reading reviews of some recent low-end devices, a number of readers complain about a variety of problems – one person’s USB ports don’t work, another can’t get Wi-Fi functional, a third has no trouble with Wi-Fi or USB, but sound is heavily distorted. These are quality control problems that dog low-end manufacturing and they have to be fixed before these devices are ready for Western markets.

What the growth of these companies shows, however, is that there are other ARM licensees that could emerge as major players in their own right. This is particularly true in India and China, where much of the long-term smartphone growth is expected to take place.