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
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
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
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
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
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.