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Qualcomm Steps Up, Two More Chipset Suppliers Drop Out

by Chris Taylor | Sep 29, 2015

Qualcomm recently announced new details of its flagship Snapdragon 820 processor, once again positioning itself ahead of the competition in the premium tier.  At about the same time, Intel was rumored close to a deal to acquire VIA Telecom, and Marvell decided to exit cellular.

At a big Qualcomm-sponsored event in Hong Kong in early September, Qualcomm announced new details of its upcoming Snapdragon 820 baseband-applications processor and modem platform.  The processor will use higher performance cores with an emphasis on display quality and improved user experience, at the same time lowering power consumption compared to Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 810.  Many in the industry expect Qualcomm to win Samsung back as a Snapdragon customer in the follow-on to the Samsung Galaxy S6, a premium smartphone expected in 2016.

The specifications released so far for the Snapdragon 820 processor are more impressive than last year’s Snapdragon 810, as one would expect.  Actual performance measurements will have to wait until the Snapdragon 820 ships in production phones, but here is a summary of the claims:

  • Quad-core KRYO CPU, 64-bit, with 2.2 GHz maximum clock speed: The KRYO is said to have twice the performance and half the power consumption at the same load as the Snapdragon 810 CPU.
  • Three graphics processing engines: Adreno 530 GPU, Adreno DPU (display processor unit), Adreno VPU (video processor unit):
    • Qualcomm claims that the Adreno 530 GPU has 40 percent better computational performance for mobile UIs, games, web browsing and virtual reality.
    • At the same time, the Adreno 530 consumes 40 percent less power than the Adreno 430 used in the Snapdragon 810.
  • Two Spectra ISPs (image signal processors) for camera support.Spectra includes anti-aliasing for the latest sub-one micron CMOS image sensors, radial noise reduction, vignetting and color correction for small lenses, improved autofocus and compression, and adaptive brightening and contrast management for better low-light performance.  Qualcomm claims that the ISPs can handle any required camera resolution, but we think the practical limit will be 42 megapixels.
  • Hexagon 680 DSP with HVX (hex vector extension) architecture: The Hexagon 680 incorporates a small low-power core within a larger core for “always on” sensor applications.
  • The Snapdragon 820 can capture and encode 4K UHD video at 60 fps, display it at 30 fps, and send it to an external display at 60 fps over HDMI.

Samsung fabricates the Snapdragon 820 in its new 14 nm FinFET process optimized for low leakage current and low power consumption.  Qualcomm came under some criticism for the power consumption of the Snapdragon 810, fabricated at 22 nm, after reports of some phones overheating and suffering from short battery life.  Whether the concerns are justified we don’t know, but Qualcomm has gone to great length to stress lower power consumption for the Snapdragon 820.  The Snapdragon 820 will ship in sample quantities this year, and should appear in production phones in Q1 2016.

The long list of new features supported by the modem portion of the Snapdragon 820 impressed us even more than the overall processor performance claims:

  • Downlink speeds up to LTE Cat 12 (up to 600 Mbps) using 3x CA (carrier aggregation).
  • Uplink speeds up to LTE Cat. 13 (up to 150 Mbps) using 2x CA with 64QAM.
  • Up to 4 x 4 MIMO on one downlink LTE carrier (transmission mode 4 using FDD LTE).
  • Uplink data compression for faster uplinks.
  • Support for 802.11ac Wave 2 (MU-MIMO) and multi-gigabit 802.11ad (up to 4.6 Mbps using 60 GHz) using external Wi-Fi radio chips from Qualcomm.
  • Support for both LTE-U and LTE + Wi-Fi link aggregation (LWA).
  • Call continuity when roaming among Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G, and 2G using Qualcomm’s “Zeroth” (trademarked) cognitive processing to determine the best connection available at any time.
  • Next-generation HD Voice (VoLTE) and Video (ViLTE) calling.
  • Support for closed-loop impedance match antenna tuning using Qualcomm antenna tuners.
  • “Haven” software improvements for malware detection, and many other enhancements to the user experience.

This is the first publicly announced processor and modem platform that supports 600 Mbps DL and 150 Mbps UL, what Qualcomm calls “X12” modem speed.  We think that operators in China will be among the first to adopt UL CA for its help in addressing the DL/UL asymmetry built into TDD-LTE.  Faster uplinks can help at tourist sites and sports events where consumers often upload videos and photos to friends and social media web sites, and uplink CA will help TDD-LTE compete with FDD-LTE on a more equal footing.

MediaTek, Samsung, Hisilicon (Huawei), Marvell and Intel offer or have announced integrated baseband-applications processors comparable to the Snapdragon 820, but many of these SoCs target smartphones below the premium tier, and none can support Cat. 12 DL and Cat. 13 UL.  One example is Marvell’s PXA1936, which targeted the premium tier when it was announced almost a year ago.  Now, this SoC looks dated compared to both the Snapdragon 810 and the new Snapdragon 820, with lower performance and fewer features.  A sign that Marvell's LTE portfolio was not quite competitive, Marvell's mobile business suffered from four straight quarters of declining revenue through the second quarter of 2015.  In late September 2015 Marvell announced it would downsize its mobile platform business to focus on IoT, automotive, and networking.

VIA Telecom appears to be another company about to leave the ranks of the cellular baseband and chipset suppliers:

  • Press reports in S.E. Asia in late September said that Taiwan-based VIA Technologies was very close to completing the sale of its VIA Telecom CDMA chipset business to Intel.
  • VIA Telecom supplies CDMA chipsets to Samsung and some smaller OEMs and ODMs.
  • Intel’s acquisition of VIA Telecom could allow Intel to support CDMA in its upcoming SoFIA LTE chipset, which would help Intel’s LTE prospects in low-cost 4G mobile devices for North America and China where some operators still use CDMA.

The acquisition would mean that three LTE chipset suppliers now support CDMA: Qualcomm, MediaTek and Intel.  MediaTek announced earlier this year that it would support CDMA in its upcoming cellular chipsets.  Qualcomm of course was the original developer of CDMA, and is the main supplier of CDMA chipsets.

With Marvell soon out of the way, the market will have five suppliers with more than a few percent share in LTE: Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, Hisilicon and Spreadtrum.  Intel still has some catching up to do.

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