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MWC 2014: An in-depth look at the future for mobile chipsets

You may have a good idea regarding which smartphone you'd like to buy in the next month or two, but it's never too early to think about the devices you'll be eyeing closer to the end of 2014 and beyond.

At Mobile World Congress this week in Barcelona, chip makers like Qualcomm, Intel, MediaTek, Nvidia, and Broadcom gave us a good look at the mobile platforms they'll be pushing throughout the year and well into 2015. You may not be able to buy handsets, tablets, wearables, and accessories based on these chipsets just yet, but it's always worth looking ahead to the future.

So let's break down some of the biggest semiconductor announcements and demos that we witnessed at MWC. We've also got some additional input from industry watcher Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy, who's also been on the ground at MWC this week.

It's a 64-bit world

Apple broke the seal on ARM's first 64-bit instruction set for mobile processors last September, when it plunked its new dual-core, ARMv8-A-based A7 application processor into the iPhone 5S. In 2014, all of the major mobile chip makers are jumping on the 64-bit train.

At MWC, MediaTek showcased a new quad-core 64-bit processor called the MT6732, a lower-cost alternative to the MT6595 octa-core 32-bit chip the Taiwan-based company has made its premier smartphone product. The MT6732 and MT6595 feature ARM Cortex-A53-based application processors in System-on-a-Chip (SoC) packages for sub-$200 (£120) smartphones that also incorporate an ARM Mali-T760 GPU, a multi-mode 4G LTE modem, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

"With the MT6732, MediaTek has essentially taken what ARM IP has to offer in CPUs and GPUs and productised it," Moorhead said. "MediaTek doesn't add nearly as much IP to their platforms as Qualcomm, Intel, or Nvidia, but the company is the low-cost provider. This is why the MT6732 won't move above the midrange, but the midrange is where a lot of volume exists in China."

Marvell and Qualcomm are a couple more notable chip vendors that are bringing out 64-bit ARM-based processors for mobile devices this year. Marvell's new Armada Mobile PXA 1928 platform, aimed squarely at the Asian market, sports an ARM Cortex-A53 application processor to go along with a 5-mode LTE modem.

Qualcomm, meanwhile, may also be going after the mid-market in Asia with new 64-bit Snapdragon 600 platforms showcased at MWC, according to Moorhead. While Qualcomm dominates the upper reaches of the Android handset market with its Snapdragon 800 products and leading-edge LTE solutions, the upcoming quad-core Snapdragon 610 and octa-core 615 chipsets are aimed lower down on the chain.

"The most compelling new product Qualcomm announced was the Snapdragon 615. It is specifically designed to take on MediaTek in China, who seem fixated on eight cores and 64-bit," Moorhead said. "I expect the 615 will be a good performer, given Qualcomm has the resources to differentiate it. Unlike a big.LITTLE implementation, the 615 has two 'bunches' of full-size quad A53s."

Here come the PC players

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Unlike much of its competition in the mobile space, Intel is no newbie when it comes to 64-bit computing and throwing oodles of central processing cores at computational problems. But the x86 giant has had trouble inserting its CISC-based processors into a mobile device market dominated by chips based on licensed, RISC-based chip designs from ARM.

Intel has next-generation Atom SoCs codenamed Merrifield due out in devices in the second quarter. At MWC, the chip giant demoed some reference smartphone designs based on Merrifield and another new Atom product line called Moorefield that's arriving later in the year. Sascha Segan got his hands on those reference devices in Barcelona (see his preview piece here, and the slideshow below) and liked what he saw, though still had doubts about Intel's ability to compete with ARM in mobile.

"Intel has built something lovely in its Merrifield and Moorefield reference phones... these little phones are sleek and slim, with tapered edges and what appears to be a glass-covered back," Segan said. "They aren't dumb black slabs like so many of the standard phones you see on the market: They have a slightly edgy, angular personality.”

"The phones weren't all that functional, alas. I tried to play a racing game; it quit. They didn't have any Internet access," he continued. "But I summoned up CPU-Z on the quad-core Mooresfield phone and saw it racing along, with each core remaining docile at 332MHz and then jumping up as far as 2300MHz when needed."

Segan's take, that Intel remains "deeply challenged in phones," was shared by Moorhead, though the analyst also noted that the chip giant has surfaced with an absolutely legitimate LTE solution, the XMM 7260, a good deal more quickly than a lot of folks thought possible. Intel will be packaging the XMM 7260 with its Atom SoCs, but also selling it as a standalone front-end solution that could be paired with ARM-based application processors.

"Intel surprised many by shipping a fully comprehensive CAT-6 LTE modem solution across 30 bands with the XMM 7260. It doesn't appear that Intel's Merrifield application processor got a lot of traction, but Moorefied and Cherry Trail are right around the corner," Moorhead said.

Could Intel finally break into mobile in a big way with a modem rather than a central processor? It's not the route to success one would have predicted a year ago, but it's now looking like Intel's 2010 acquisition of Infineon was a pretty smart move.

Nvidia is another company with a storied PC background that's looking to be a big player in mobile. Like Intel, Nvidia added RF technology from the outside when it acquired baseband chip maker Icera in 2011.

At MWC this year, Nvidia’s big reveal was a new Tegra Note 7 tablet, pictured below, that will come equipped with 4G LTE. In recent quarters, the graphics chip maker has mirrored the approach of companies like Google by goosing the market for its latest under-the-hood platforms with self-branded end-user products.

Like Google's Nexus family of products, Nvidia's Shield handheld gaming device and Tegra Note line-up appear to be intended as proofs-of-concept to potential device-making partners, but also as nice little earners if they're well received.

The upgraded version of the Tegra Note 7, set to be made available for $299 (£180) from distribution partners starting in the second quarter, includes a fifth-generation "software-defined" i500 LTE modem offering LTE, HSPA+, and EDGE connectivity on bands serviced by "popular carriers across the world," Nvidia said.

Moorhead figured it's a good start for Nvidia in the cellular modem game but there's still a lot of catching up to do on LTE with the likes of Qualcomm.

"Nvidia demonstrated that their risky bet on software-defined modems is a reality and they can ship both CAT-3 voice and data LTE in big networks. They appear to have South America, Western Europe, and the US covered, but need to work harder on LTE Advanced and China," the analyst said.

Wearables and wireless charging

Aside from the new chips unveiled at MWC that will be going into future smartphones and tablets, we also got a glimpse of how semiconductor firms are approaching some trendy new arenas in consumer and embedded tech.

Wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) are two such arenas, where many of the same companies showcasing new smartphone and tablet platforms are also making plays.

Qualcomm, for instance, lifted the curtain on its Gobi 9x30 solution for automotive telematics. Broadcom is billing its new BCM4771 chip as "the industry's first Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) System-on-a-Chip (SoC), designed for low-power, mass-market wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smartwatches."

Meanwhile, at Embedded World in Nuremberg, Germany, Freescale Semiconductor this week rolled out its smallest ever ARM-based microcontroller unit (MCU) for embedded devices in the IoT market, the Kinetsis KL03.

The chip maker is billing the KL03, pictured above, as "smaller than a golf ball dimple" – the 32-bit MCU with an ARM Cortex-M0+ computing core shrinks the preceding KL02 unit by 15 per cent in a package that measures just 1.6 x 2.0mm. Possible uses for the new MCU in the burgeoning IoT space range from placement in embedded smart home systems, wearable tech products, and industrial devices, to exotic applications like pairing the KL03 with a simple sensor array in a small pill that could be swallowed and provide health data to doctors.

Another early stage mobile technology that looks to break out big in 2014 is wireless charging for mobile devices.

For instance, Broadcom's new BCM4354 5G Wi-Fi chip, which doubles antenna support via 2x2 MIMO technology for the first time in a smartphone Wi-Fi solution, will come in a flavour that supports standardised Rezence wireless charging technology.

Qualcomm and MediaTek are also ginning up wireless charging solutions in 2014, suggesting that there's a very good chance the next top-flight smartphone you purchase will be able to top up on power without needing to plug it into a wall outlet.

For more on MWC 2014, check out our live coverage of the event.