Marvell also hints at possible Windows 8 tablets/laptops

We had an interesting chat with the Marvell Technology Group, Ltd. (MRVL).

Marvell is perhaps best known as the company that took the Xscale ARM division off of Intel Corp.'s (INTC) hands in 2006.  During the modern smartphone era, Marvell has been a quiet competitor, overshadowed by companies like Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) which have pushed the smartphone processing power envelope more aggressively.

By contrast Marvell has focused on budget smartphones.  It is in most of Research in Motion, Ltd.'s (TSE:RIM) BlackBerry smartphones.  These budget smartphones have led it to strong sales in Indonesia and China.

Blackberry 8910 China
Marvell has done well in China, thanks to close ties with RIM and Nokia.
[Image Source: BlackBerry Rocks]

Interestingly, while Marvell is American-based, China is one the markets it is most focused on.  Jack Kang, director of Marvell's applications processor business unit states, "China was a very strategic investment."

With Windows Phones set to land in China later this year in budget smartphones, Mr. Kang is making a bold prediction -- "If there's Windows Phones in China, there will probably be Windows Phones with Marvell in China."

That would be a major market event as thus far Qualcomm has been the exclusive ARM chipmaker partner of Windows Phone.  While Windows Phone has struggled in the U.S. where key Windows Phone partner Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) has virtually no market share, in China Nokia is the top smartphone maker, so a switch to Marvell ARM cores would be quite a coup.

Nokia is the top phonemaker in China, thus it's crucial that Marvell gets in Nokia's new Chinese Windows Phones when it makes the shift later this year. [Image Source: M.I.C. Gadget]

Mr. Kang feels his firm's biggest strength is providing "quality low-cost devices".  While it doesn't bake discrete Wi-Fi circuitry into some of its system-on-a-chip devices, it says this approach works in markets like Indonesia or rural China where there's plentiful 3G but sparse Wi-Fi coverage.

Marvell current produces single and dual-core chips, with the smartphone-aimed ARMADA family.  Despite competitors like Qualcomm and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) jumping to quad core, Marvell says that approach doesn't make sense.  Mr. Kang comments, "We don't think quad core makes sense at 40 [nm] from a power perspective, from a price perspective."

OLPC Marvell chip
Marvell's ARMADA series ARM CPUs power smartphones and mobile devices like the ARM OLPC variant. [Image Source:]

He says that Marvell is tentatively slotted to release quad-core designs when it hits 28 nm in mid-2013.  The chipmaker uses Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd.'s (TPE:2330) third-party fabrication services.  TSMC has struggled at the 28 nm node, delivering low yields and in turn higher costs -- a combination that doesn't work with Marvell's business model -- hence the delay.

Marvell feels that the fact that it takes its ARM license and build a unique core from the ground up using the ARM instruction set gives it an advantage over competitors like NVIDIA that simply take the core licensed from ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM), but don't do a complete redesign.

The company looks at the tablets market as "saturated", although it is dabbling in the tablet space with the ARMADA 600 Series-equipped VTAB1008 tablet from Vizio, which is sold at major retailers like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), priced at $329 USD.  Marvell was surely a bit disappointed to miss out on getting in its Key Partner RIM's PlayBook --Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN), another U.S. chipmaker -- scored that contract.  Marvell's approach with respect to tablets appears to be a wait-and-see attitude.  It has a variety of ARMADA cores that it is offering to prospective tablet makers, but it appears to be pushing its smartphone business more heavily.

Mr. Kang hinted Marvell may jump on the tablet bandwagon or even release budget ARM laptops in Q4 2012 when Windows 8 arrives -- and with it the first-ever ARM CPU support for a Windows main line operating system.  He comments, "Microsoft already said Windows 8 will run on ARM.  And we build ARM devices, so...."

Windows 8 tablet
Marvell hints it may be cooking up ARM Windows 8 tablets/laptops, too.

This move would make sense because Marvell has been involved with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project in producing an ARM (Marvell) powered design.  It has also played with low cost Linux laptops for years.

The company also showed off a (Android 3.2) "Honeycomb" television set, which it plans to target as an introduction to Internet TV in budget markets like China.  This was a reference design, whereas Marvell would partner with a traditional TV maker for production designs.  

The Honeycomb set uses Marvell's latest dual-core chip, which contains an extra low-power core to conserve energy during simpler tasks.  The power savings approach mirrors that found in Tegra 3.  In that sense Marvell's dual-core is technically a tri-core, much as NVIDIA's quad-core is technically a penta-core.

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