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Analyst Insights Wireless Watch: MWC: Innovations in power and integrated radios will far outweigh multicore
Feb 22, 2012 – Rethink Research

The gadget watchers are enthusiastically watching for the first sight of a quad-core smartphone in the wild at next week’s Mobile World Congress. But the jury remains firmly out on whether small-screen, power sensitive gadgets will actually benefit from multicore, and from the consumer’s point of view, other aspects of handset chip technology will add far more to the experience, this year at least. The chip vendors know this, and while early mover Nvidia is sure to have partners showing its quad-core Tegra 3 in gadgets, most multicore excitement will be reserved for tablets. The watchwords for most of the silicon giants will instead be power efficiency, and new levels of integration. Those two themes will tap into the immediate demand to pack LTE in various bands, plus other emerging radios, into smartphones that do not require a briefcase to carry, and can last at least a day without recharging.  
 
A tall order perhaps, but one which Qualcomm and Samsung, among others, will be looking to address. Samsung is set to unveil its long expected quad-core Exynos in Barcelona, but this is unlikely to be seen in commercial products until late this year, while Qualcomm may not even bring out its future four-core Snapdragon at MWC. Samsung did give a preview of its offering at this week’s silicon gala, the ISSCC (International Solid State Circuits Conference) in San Francisco, but it was more vocal about the power efficiency aspects of its architecture than its raw horsepower, agreeing that, in its previous generations, it had focused over-focused on the latter, at the expense of battery life.  
 
The new Exynos chip carries a heavy weight on its shoulders, because is important to multiple elements of Samsung’s business. It will appear in the handset unit’s next wave of superphones but will also be pitched to third party device makers. And it showcases the foundry arm’s latest 32nm HKMG (high-k metal gate) process, offering power and performance advantages over 45nm, for Samsung’s customers as well as its own products. The Korean firm has invested significantly in this process, hoping to woo customers from larger foundry TSMC of Taiwan, which is only just deploying HKMG – already used by Intel and GlobalFoundries. TSMC has a 28nm process, but has supply constraints, so Samsung aims to lure some of its clients – analysts name Nvidia and even AMD as candidates, because TSMC is likely to prioritize Qualcomm – with its excess capacity. It will also aim to retain at least some of Apple’s foundry custom, as the iPhone maker is said to have encountered hitches with transferring some manufacture of its A5 processor to TSMC.  
 
Samsung’s own chip, then, has the difficult task of appealing to both foundry and handset clients, most of whom will compete directly with the Korean company as its own mobile prowess grows – an awkward balance which has already created the epic legal stand-off with Apple, the second largest customer for Samsung Group. Apple still uses its arch-rival for memory chips, displays and the A5 partnership and will find it impossible to break the ties completely with a supplier of such scale, given the iPhone maker’s own volume requirements. But it will certainly reduce its dependence, leaving Samsung to cast about for other clients.  
 
The latest Exynos offering runs on two or four ARM Cortex A9 cores running at rates from 200MHz to 1.5GHz along with a 64-bit ARM Neon media processing block. Unlike the most dangerous competitor, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon family, there are no options with integrated basebands. Samsung has been stepping up its investment in LTE basebands and becoming less reliant on Qualcomm and others in this area, but remains behind the curve in fully integrating the elements of the handset system-on-chip. Broadcom and Qualcomm are famous for their integration skills and Nvidia acquired Icera last year to pursue an all-in-one platform of its own. Also included in the new Exynos is the latest version of Samsung’s own graphic unit, which supports the OpenGL ES 2.0 API.  
 
Samsung claims its process, and the resulting chip, address the key challenge of the mobile device world – boosting performance while keeping power consumption low. Se-Hyung Yang, a principal SoC engineer who presented the product at ISSCC, said the 45nm process had majored on boosting performance. But that pushed power consumption limits and so the focus with the move to 32nm has been on optimizing for low power. The new chip harnesses the 32nm process and several power and thermal management techniques to claim up to 26% more overall performance than the current 45nm Exynos, and 34% to 50% better battery life, depending on the application.  
 
The latter is achieved by introducing a complex system for turning off idle components. The chip has four independent power domains and several power sub-domains. Each ARM core and up to a half of the cache memory can be turned off or on independently and the same goes for the media accelerator blocks.  
 
The critical importance of power management is diverting the big chip designers’ attention somewhat from raw performance – and it’s no coincidence that this is the area where they feel best qualified to shine against Intel, which will have its first MWC as a handset processor supplier to be taken seriously. Qualcomm seems not to have made up its mind on whether to show a quad-core Snapdragon at MWC, but is already talking up its demonstrations of platforms with integrated LTE basebands, which will slash power consumption as well as cost and size, pushing 4G phones into the mainstream.  
 
In an interview with GigaOM, Qualcomm’s VP of product management, Raj Talluri, warned that any quad-core smartphones on view at Barcelona would be concept devices, and consumers might be more interested in the immediate and tangible benefits of power efficient superphones. He says that the dual-core S4-based MSM8960 chipset will make its debut in a range of handsets at the show, offering an integrated LTE modem which can share resources with the apps processor.  
 
Like Samsung, Qualcomm has also been taking advantage of modern process technology, at its TSMC foundry, to pack more elements onto a chip while lowering power – the 8960 is its first 28nm chip, and the move seems to be delivering the desired results. In recent benchtests, run by comparison test site Anandtech, the product delivered an “insane” Linpack performance advantage when running Android 4.0. "Occasionally we'll see performance numbers that just make us laugh at their absurdity," said the reviewers. “The MSM8960 is able to deliver more than twice the performance of any currently shipping SoC.” In the 28nm process, Qualcomm squeezes two of its Snapdragon S4 ‘Krait’ cores onto its SoC, as well as an LTE/multimode modem, Adreno graphics processing unit, 1Mbyte of L2 cache, and accelerators. Its S4-based chipset deliverered more than twice the Linpack performance of the next placed unit, the Samsung Galaxy SII, based on the current Exynos generation.  
 
“All of the LTE devices out there today use separate modems and use separate radios,” Talluri said. “With integrated LTE we’ll see significant improvements in power efficiency.” But so far, all the quad-core processors on the market are standalone, so it will be a year or so before integrated SoCs are available to make the battery life of these devices acceptable for a handset, leaving larger products like tablets a more likely market. Even if and when four cores do become normal, Qualcomm claims a headstart on competitors in making power consumption manageable. It says its processor architecture is unique in allowing the four cores to run asynchronously, so that they do not all have to go up to full speed when activated, scaling compute power to the task in hand.  
 
Qualcomm may want to drive power efficiency to new levels, but its real fame lies in the tight integration of components in its SoCs. Its next challenge is likely to be applying that expertise to a broader selection of elements, bringing surrounding radios like Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC and FM into a unified platform. It has many of the ingredients following its acquisition of Atheros, but is not yet rivalling the combo chip leaders – Texas Instruments, Broadcom and Marvell – in the number of radios it supports or how tightly they are squeezed together.  
 
This is set to change, though – in November, the San Diego giant revealed new details of its Snapdragon S4 processors, which will have integrated basebands not just for 3G/4G but also Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Researchers at NPD In-Stat believe these processors with embedded WLan will start to impact on the revenue potential for separate combo chipsets, potentially to the tune of $590m by 2015.  
 
“One of the critical factors in determining the impact from these integrated processors is the impact on the bill-of-materials cost,” said analyst Greg Potter. “Not only do you eliminate the need for a Wi-Fi combo chip, you potentially simplify the PCB in phones, tablets, and similar devices. Other benefits include the potential to decrease the number of antennas and the elimination of potential signal interference. The initial markets for these chipsets will be high end and midtier smartphones along with Android tablets. Moving forward, expect these chips to migrate down to low end smartphones, low end tablets, and even basic and featurephones.”  
 
TI, of course, no longer has its own cellular basebands, but is a master at packing other radios into a single package, which can then be used with or without its OMAP processors. It recently managed to cram Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, NFC, GPS and even the Russian satellite system Glonass and the personal area network sensor, ANT+, into one product, called WiLink 8.0. And despite having most of the alphabet in one chip, it claims that, by offloading some tasks to a controller, it will preserve acceptable battery life.  
 
Broadcom also has a wide selection of combo chips with its latest offerings, the InConcert BCM43241 and BCM4334, supporting dual-band 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0 and FM radio, among others, with an integrated processor also allowing for offload of audio processing to reduce power. And the firm, having sworn to take a more central role in the smartphone this year, will increasingly be a thorn in Qualcomm’s side as it integrates its combo chips with its basebands and processors for full SoCs.  
 
The big question is whether Intel can successfully address these two key targets of low power and integration, neither being areas where it has shone in the mobile world. The firm will make much, in Barcelona, of the first smartphone wins for Atom, with Motorola Mobility and Lenovo, which it said were enabled by major (if belated) power consumption breakthroughs. The giant is shifting to 28nm and to 22nm processes for Atom, and it is also looking ahead to a level of integration which will shame even Qualcomm.  
 
Admittedly it is about three years away from commercial devices, but Intel showed off the next generation Atom model, Rosepoint - which will incorporate Wi-Fi into the main dual-core chip – at the ISSCC event.  
 
Processors with integrated Wi-Fi would help make high performance connected devices smaller, cheaper and less power hungry in future and Intel is initially eyeing its own ultrabook slim notebook design, which is heavily targeted at the market for gadgets constantly linked to the cloud. The advantages of inbuilt wireless could make the platform more attractive against rivals like cloudbooks and future iterations of the MacBook Air. Incorporating a wireless transceiver into the Atom silicon could support many days between charging for an ultrabook, said Intel CTO Justin Rattner.  
 
Intel will also look to include cellular radios as it aims to take a role in the smartphone market for the first time, bringing Atom closer to ARM-based, highly integrated chipsets like Snapdragon. But Intel is looking further than just catching up with Qualcomm. Rattner said some firms have integrated baseband MACs in apps processors, but “RF integration is very rare to non-existent [in commercial chips] and full digital integration has yet to come to any of these products. Many of these blocks are the first of their ilk.”  
 
He told EETimes: “We are getting close to having a complete kit of digital RF building blocks for radios. The next step in research is to integrate these blocks on SoCs with digital logic circuits. We can now build a Wi-Fi radio and hopefully in the not too distant future a cellular radio to make digital RF practical for SoCs.”  
 
Intel has worked for years on its own radios but suffered many setbacks before it acquired Infineon’s mobile chip arm, mainly for its baseband technology. In 2003, it kicked off a decade-long development program designed to achieve a fully software defined digital radio which could support many connections and bands, and which could be fully integrated into its PC and cellphone processors, rather than being separate components. It was an early firm to push into manufacturing radios in silicon CMOS rather than silicon germanium, although many of its advanced visions have not really reached reality – back then, the firm said it would have its ‘agile radio’ – a step on from software defined radio – ready in 2010. However, with Rosepoint, some of the plans it outlined almost 10 years ago are starting to look viable.  
 
Intel’s long time frenemy in the PC world, Nvidia, has become an all-out rival for the smartphone and tablet processor, and is likely to harness its PC ecosystem roots to move quickly in Windows 8 slates this year. For now, though, it is not trying to fill every slot in the mobile device, majoring more than the others on its performance credentials – its well-known graphics engines and its commitment to multicore devices. For instance, Tegra 3 claims up to three times the graphics performance of its predecessor and the CPUs are complemented with a new 12-core GeForce graphics processing unit geared to ultra-realistic effects such as dynamic lighting, as well as leveraging the Nvidia’s 3D Vision technology.  
 
It is not ignoring the twin holy grails of power efficiency and integration, however. Tegra 3 also boasts 61% lower power consumption compared to Tegra 2. One of the innovations which helps prolong battery life is a fifth ‘companion core’, which harnesses a patent pending technology known as variable symmetric multiprocessing (vSMP). Low power, routine tasks are offloaded to this fifth core while the main four concentrate on intensive processing. When low power activities like listening to music are ongoing, the four main cores are shut down.  
 
And on the integration front, Nvidia bought software defined modem maker Icera last year to add to its CPU/GPU platform. That purchase, which echoed Intel’s of Infineon’s baseband unit, is starting to bear fruit. Nvidia has yet to integrate Tegra and its baseband as tightly as Qualcomm does, but ZTE has bought the benefits of a single-vendor offering, and both the key Nvidia chips will feature in its new Mimosa X model. This Android 4.0 offering will use Tegra 2, the GeForce graphics processor and Icera 450 HSPA+ modem. Buying the chips from one supplier means the Mimosa X will cost “substantially less” than most comparable handsets, the partners claim.  
 
The product, which will make its debut at Mobile World Congress next week, is the first to use the latest Icera chip. “The Tegra processor and Icera modem will play an important part in the development of the mobile handset market, and ZTE has worked closely with Nvidia to develop the Mimosa X smartphone in time for launch,” said the head of ZTE’s terminal division, He Shiyou. Michael Rayfield, general manager of the mobile business at the chip supplier, added in the statement: “This is the first time that both Nvidia Tegra and Icera processors are powering a smartphone.”  
 
As more carriers go live with LTE services, and want to push these to mass market customers, integrated 4G devices will become a priority. “All of the LTE devices out there today use separate modems and use separate radios,” said Qualcomm’s Talluri. “With integrated LTE we’ll see significant improvements in power efficiency (though there are many other factors for 4G, such as the multiple bands and antenna types in use, and current lack of cell density).  
 
Also driving down cost and power for LTE handsets through improved integration is Renesas Mobile, which recently unveiled one of the first multimode LTE baseband processors, supporting LTE and HSPA+ in one chip and targeting devices priced between $150 and $300. To date, most LTE devices require separate chips to handle 2G/3G baseband connections.  
 
As the MWC sessions will show, all these innovations in reducing power consumption, and packing more functionality into the SoC, will result in more affordable and usable smartphones for the mass market, helping drive the migration to LTE. By contrast, whizzy as multicore superphones may be, their impact on the industry, and on usage patterns, will remain marginal by comparison.  
 
CEVA unveils its most flexible DSP platform yet  
 
CEVA is seeking the role that ARM has in mobile processors, in its own DSP (digital signal processor) market. It aims to enable licensees of its DSP cores to challenge incumbents like Texas Instruments, by supporting as many wireless communications standards as possible. It has extended its reach with its new ‘universal advanced communications engines’, as it describes its CEVA-XC4000 family of programmable cores.  
 
These are designed to help chip developers support new standards quickly, while preserving their investments in previous generation products for the cellular and broadcast sectors. So the XC4000 models maintain backward compatibility with previous CEVA communication processor cores, such as the XC321 and XC323. But they harness a new, single, low power DSP framework for all six processor designs, and for a whole array of standards.  
 
The connections supported include LTE and even the upcoming LTE-Advanced, plus HSPA+, W-CDMA, TD-SCDMA, and GSM/GPRS/EDGE. For connectivity, there are all the Wi-Fi iterations including the new 11ac and Wi-Fi Direct, plus GNSS, Bluetooth and P2P. CEVA also supports most digital TV standards as well as white spaces, ZigBee, and the home networking protocols Multimedia over Coax, DSL, powerline communication and G.hn.  
 
Each XC4000 processor supports variations from a single vector unit with 16 MACs to four vector units with 128 MACs. “Our customers can mix and match these different XC4000 processors to address a wide range of communications markets,” the firm’s director of product marketing, Eyal Bergman, told EETimes.  
 
CEVA has always promised high levels of flexibility with its programmable designs, offering its software defined approach as an alternative to traditional hardwired modems. But is now promising scalability as well as a wide choice of technologies, the firm argues. And it has put a major degree of effort into reduce power consumption and die size for small devices. The XC4000 should support LTE-Advanced PHY chips at half the size of products based on its XC323.  
 
CEVA’s designs were in about 40% of handsets shipped in 2011, according to the Linley Group, and it also targets base stations as well as processors for broadcasting, smart grid and broadband gear. Last year, Intel extended the licence it had acquired with Infineon Wireless, raising speculation that the giant would extend its mobile offerings, while Samsung, Broadcom, NEC and Mindspeed are also customers, among others.  
 
Meanwhile, another IP core supplier, Tensilica, has also unveiled a new design targeting basebands for software programmable LTE-Advanced devices. The BBE32UE DSP core is the latest in its ConnX family and can be coupled with the firm’s baseband dataplane processors to enable a flexible LTE-Advanced modem which consumes less than 200mW of power (excluding turbo coding). The BBU32UE has 32 processing elements, although in a handset some activities (FFTs and FIR filters) will be offloaded to other dedicated DSPs.The new core has been optimized for category 6 and 7 LTE-A and can also support 2G, 3G, LTE and HSPA+ standards.  
 
Tensilica’s general manager for the baseband unit, Eric Dewannain, said the transition from LTE to LTE-A can require up to five times more algorithm and data rate computation, which puts huge pressure on power consumption. Tensilica has worked with handset partners and Germany’s MimoOn, which develops LTE software stacks and software defined radio technology. "Tensilica understands how tight the power budget will be for LTE-Advanced and has applied their customizable processor technology to beat this challenge," said Will Strauss, president of DSP analysis company Forward Concepts, in a statement issued by Tensilica. General product release is planned for the third quarter of 2012 and first silicon early in 2013.

Courtesy Rethink Research.



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