system-on-a-chip solutions will very soon throw down the gauntlet into the ring as well. Qualcomm is just warming us up with its second generation Snapdragon single-core chipsets, made with the 45nm technology. These are currently present in the T-Mobile G2, T-Mobile myTouch 4G, HTC Desire HD, and the upcoming HTC Inspire 4G for AT&T, Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, and the LTE-enabled HTC ThunderBolt. These chips are no slouches either - the ThunderBolt did 1700+ on Quadrant, placing it at the top of the single-core game. Qualcomm’s huge advantage is that it integrates all that the others offer, and rounds it up with baseband connectivity of your choosing, be it 3G, LTE, or HSPA+.
HTC ThunderBolt, HTC Inspire 4G, T-Mobile G2, Sony Ericsson Xperia arc, T-Mobile 4G - phones with the second generation single-core Snapdragon
third generation of the Snapdragon chipset, which will have two cores at up to 1.2GHz, and even 1.5GHz, possibly for tablets. Qualcomm demoed all kinds of trickery with them at the CES show, including stereoscopic 3D video with HD resolution, multi-party video conferencing, and fascinating gaming physics on the new Adreno 220 GPU. Unlike Tegra 2, the dual-core arrangement in the 3rd gen Snapdragon can selectively turn off one of the cores completely, thus being more power-efficient.
One of these chipsets even has all 3G radios known to man inside, so it can play nice with all four major US carriers, if needed. For now it is confirmed that the Asus EeePad MeMO Honeycomb tablet will be running a dual-core Snapdragon inside, but it’s not coming until the summer. Have a look at a quick video about the platform:
Qualcomm also has a wonder-chipset up its sleeve, where the future is bright, but not near. The MSM 8960 Snapdragon will have 5x the performance of the 3rd generation Snapdragons with two cores, and will sap just 25% of the power. LTE finally unites with all 3G bands of the world in a single radio there, so we’d rather wait till Q2 of 2011, when devices with this fourth generation Snapdragon ship, rather than pay Verizon’s or AT&T’s early adopters LTE premium this year.
OMAP4, the Texas Ranger
found its way into the BlackBerry PlayBook, so will have an idea about its capabilities very soon.
Texas Instruments already makes some of the more power-efficient designs here, as attested by the Motorola DROID 2 and DROID X, so we will be curious to see the OMAP4 in tandem with the only mobile OS that supports multicore chipsets in real time - RIM’s QNX. Early rumors raised alarm over a short-lived battery, but we are still in prototype stages, so we shouldn’t be drawing final conclusions yet.
Next in line here is the OMAP4440, which speeds the two cores up to 1.5GHz, and has the new PowerVR chip, which will allow it to capture 3D stereoscopic images from two 12MP cameras, this time with 1080p Full HD resolution. The OMAP4440 pitch is also an ability to do videoconferencing in 720p HD resolution with up to four chat participants, which is pretty sweet. This chip just began sampling, so volume production is not coming until later this year.
Marvell and Freescale
ARMADA 628. Two of them are humming at 1.5GHz, while the third, at 624MHz, serves for everyday tasks to preserve battery life, then the dynamic duo kicks in for the heavy lifting:
“The architecture is analogous to a hybrid muscle car. The ARMADA 628 is intended to perform like a race car engine on demand, while still delivering the frugal gas-mileage of a hybrid automobile. In real world terms, this enables the ARMADA 628 to play more than 10 hours of full 1080p HD video or 140 hours of music on a single charge while still providing 3 GHz of raw computational horsepower.”
Capable of dual-stream 1080p full HD video encoding and decoding at 30fps, the chipset should support 3D visuals at stunning resolutions, similar to TI's OMAP4440. Graphics performance is also boosted up from the current SoC generation - the chipset is rendering 200 million triangles per second, which is more than double what the best in class Hummingbird in the Galaxy S is now offering.
Marvell is traditionally huge in e-readers, so another notable feature is support of up to four displays - two LCDs, HDMI-out, and an ePaper controller are all listed in the mix. Marvell's creation has built-in USB 3.0, which we haven't heard the other contenders to support, and is a very welcome addition to transfer those full HD videos quickly out of the handsets. BlackBerry phones use older versions of Marvell's Armada family, so if we take a wild guess, RIM could catch up quickly on the hardware front.
ARMADA 628 supports all major mobile operating systems, and is now in manufacturers' hands for sampling, which means that we will be seeing devices with it in the second half of 2011 at the earliest. That's about the time when the third Snapdragon generation at up to 1.5GHz should be entering smartphones and tablets, so Marvell might have given Qualcomm a good rush with its announcement.
Freescale also recently announced its product series, which goes all the way up to the quad-core Freescale i.MX 6 Quad processors. That’s four ARM Cortex-A9 cores running at up to 1.2 GHz per core, folks, very impressive. It doesn’t support full HD in 3D video capture mode like Marvell’s SoC does, just 720p. Technically it might, since the GPU is probably the same latest generation ARM Mali T604 variety, as it is also rated at 200 million triangles per second. Freescale’s i.MX 6 also supports an optional ePaper display controller, like Armada 628, and its differentiating feature is the built-in support for the VP8 codec. That means Google could pick it up as the next Android reference platform, since it is really pushing forward its open WebM video standard, and even cut H.264 support in its Chrome browser recently.
In the previous article we said our money is on NVIDIA as the underdog, which might surprise the big players, and that turned out true. Now our money is on Marvell or Freescale, because USB 3.0 support (Armada 628) and hardware WebM decoding (Freescale i.MX6) are truly novel features. We are slightly leaning towards Freescale, since in the press release the company promises 24 hours of HD video playback on a charge, while the others are offering half of that, but it doesn’t specify from what battery capacity. Still, it is more likely that these chipsets will be picked for placement in tablets, rather than smartphones.
Broadcom - dual-core on a budget
500MHz. Before you scoff at the speed, bear in mind this will lead to very decent Android handsets at a price that will make you smile.
The SoC is complete with its own 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth connectivity suite. It also supports multitouch on screens with HVGA resolution, and cameras up to 5MP. All low- to mid-range features nowadays, but we'd imagine Android phones with it might break the $150 barrier downwards.
Besides the low price point, the features that set it apart from the pack, are that the chipset supports dual SIM/dual standby mode, and has a low-power NFC chip embedded, so your affordable phone won't be left out of the mobile payment revolution. The NFC chip is Broadcom's own creation, it can store data locally in its own memory, and draws power only when activated by an NFC reader at POS terminals. Sounds good, moreover the chipset is already sampling with select customers, and will be commercially available this quarter.