New chips add 64-bit ARM processing, 4K display and video support, advanced LTE, and more

If you'll be in the market for a new premium smartphone in 2015, and you're not buying an Apple, Inc. (AAPL) device, chances are the CPU powering that phone of your dreams was announced today.

Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM) today made official its plans for the much-anticipated 64-bit successor chips to the highly successful Snapdragon 800 chip line.  H2 2013's most used high-end processor was the Snapdragon 800.  This spring, designs packing the latest and greatest Snapdragon 801 and 805 (32-bit) have started to emerge.  These will be repaced on the high-end with a pair of 64-bit Snapdragon 800 processors -- the Snapdragon 808 and Snapdragon 810 -- starting next spring.

Sampling is set to begin soon in H2 2014, but we won't see the chips in products until early next year -- H1 2015.
Qualcomm single chip

The Snapdragon 808 and 810 are expected to bring the usual iterative improvements (faster core clocks, lower power consumption, and faster 3D graphics), but also will introduce some major technological leaps, such as the first inclusion of advanced LTE baseband processing on-die, support for 4K displays, and ARM's brand-new 64-bit CPU designs.

Qualcomm EVP Murthy Renduchintala comments:

The announcement of the Snapdragon 810 and 808 processors underscore Qualcomm Technologies’ continued commitment to technology leadership and a time-to-market advantage for our customers for premium tier 64-bit LTE-enabled smartphones and tablets.  These product announcements, in combination with the continued development of our next-generation custom 64-bit CPU, will ensure we have a tremendous foundation on which to innovate as we continue to push the boundaries of mobile computing performance in the years to come.

The new flagship 64-bit chips join the Snapdragon 410 (announced in Dec. 2013) and the Snapdragon 610 and 615 (announced at the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Feb. 2014).

II. A Laundry List of Drool-Worthy Features

The Snapdragon 808 and 810 don't leave many boxes unchecked when it comes to emerging smartphone must-haves.
Snapdragon chips
On a more detailed level, the new chips include:
  • 20 nm transistors
  • CPU
    • 64-bit registers
    • ARMv8-A instruction set
    • 2 (Snapdragon 808) or 4 (Snapdragon 810) Cortex-A57 Cores (high-power tuned)
    • 4 Cortex-A53 Cores (low-power tuned)

      ARM-Cortex A53/A57
  • GPU
    • OpenGL ES 3.1 support
    • hardware tessellation
    • geometry shaders
    • programmable blending
    • Adreno 418 (Snapdragon 808)
      • +20% speedup in 3D graphics vs. Adreno 330
      • +GPGPU compute for security/encryption
    • Adreno 430 (Snapdragon 810)
      • +30% speedup in 3D graphics vs. Adreno 420
      • +100% speedup in GPGPU computing vs. Adreno 420
      • -20% power consumption at load vs. Adreno 420
  • Memory Interface/Support
    • LPDDR4 (Snapdragon 810 only)
    • LPDDR3 (Snapdragon 808 and 810)
  • Display Support
    • WQXGA (Snapdragon 808)
      • 2560x1600 pixel
      • 1.6:1 aspect ratio
    • "4K Displays" (Snapdragon 810)
      • 3840x2160 pixel (UHD)
      • 1.78:1 aspect ratio
      • Snapdragon 808 also can support UHD, but will use framebuffer compression to achieve that
  • Image Signal Processor (ISP)
    • HDMI 1.4 -- 4K (UHD) images and video
    • 12-bit (Snapdragon 808)
    • 14-bit (Snapdragon 810)
      • Faster low light focus
      • Improved white balance
      • Enhanced exposure (HDR/HDR-like features)
      • Gyrostabilization
      • 3D noise reduction
      • Higher video framerates
        • 1080p @ 120 fps
        • 4K @ 30 fps
      • 1.2GP/s throughput
      • up to 55 megapixel image sensors
  • USB 3.0
  • Wireless
    • 4th Generation Gobi Modem (9x35)
    • RF360
      • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
      • 802.11 ac Wi-FI
        • 2-stream
        • multi-user MIMO
      • Bluetooth 4.1
      • NFC
    • iZat Location Signal Processor Core
      • GPS + cellular based locating
      • Improved power usage and accuracy versus traditional processing
On paper this spec sheet is basically a laundry list of every feature we want to see in next-generation smartphones.

In that regard the greatest uncertainty lies more in the implementation of a couple of these points.  Specifically, the chips will likely be produced on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd.'s (TPE:2330) (TSMC) brand-new 20 nanometer transistor node.  How good the yields are at that node will heavily determine the pricing and launch dates of phones with these chips in them.

The new chips will be built on TSMC's brand-new 20 nm node process.
[Image Source: Legit Reviews]

The 20 nm node has some characteristics that could cause TSMC trouble at volume production.  Based on immersion lithography, the double-patterned approach requires multiple mask applications and additional runs.  

Aside from yields, the other key question about the 20 nm transistors is performance.  Intel Corp. (INTC) introduced FinFETs -- a 3D geometry structure -- as a means of reducing leakage at the 22 nm node.  By contrast, the 20 nm transistor isn't very 3D and is more of a traditional design.  This should be a good test to see how much 3D transistors are hype at the 20-22 nm feature size.  The result will impact the clock speeds Qualcomm is able to push the silicon to, and how efficient it can be from a battery life perspective.

TSMC is definitely going FinFET in the long run, introducing the feature on its upcoming 16 nm node.  The question isn't whether Intel is headed in the right direction, but whether it went FinFET unecessarily early.  The performance at 20 nm should answer that riddle.  

Also note that 20 nm without FinFETs may be easier for TSMC to make work as mobile CPUs typically operate at roughly half the frequency of traditional PC CPUs.  They also typically operate at lower voltages.  Both of these factors make leakage less of an issue, albeit still a significant one.

Another unknown is how efficient the new Adreno cores will be.

III. Sales Leader

A mobile juggernaut, Qualcomm owns an estimated 64 percent market share at last count in the baseband processor (cellular signal handling) market according to a Feb. 2014 research report by Strategy Analytics. According to iSuppli Research 52.3 percent of all integrated circuits in smartphones sold worldwide are made by Qualcomm.

The chipmaker's greatest leadership is in the CPU and GPU system-on-a-chip market.

Qualcomm has gained mobile GPU market share in 2013, as it battled against Imagination Technologies Group plc (LON:IMG).  The two chipmakers ended the year with a virtual tie (according to Jon Peddie research), with each owning about a third of the mobile graphics market.  Imagination Tech.'s chips are adopted by Apple and Samsung Electronics Comp. Ltd. (KRX:005935) (KRX:005930)  -- which make their own CPU cores and hence use the third-party Imagination Tech. solution. Qualcomm's mobile GPUs are adopted by most other device OEMs and ODMs, as they represent a ready-built solution for those lacking sophisticated mobile processor circuit engineering capabilities.

On the CPU front, Qualcomm was estimated to perform very well in 2013, as well.  Strategy Analytics pegged its H1 2013 revenue share at about 43 percent, while its application processor market share is about 50 percent, according to numbers from Forbes in 2013.  If anything, those numbers have likely risen since H1 2013.

Source: Qualcomm

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