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Linley on Mobile

Mobile-Chip Vendors Come and Go

January 1, 2013

Author: Linley Gwennap

It's not every year that the third- and fourth-ranked mobile application-processor vendors bail out of the smartphone and tablet markets, as Texas Instruments and Freescale have done. Or that the fourth-largest cellular-baseband vendor loses its sugar daddy and appears likely to fail—the tenuous spot that ST-Ericsson is now in. Intel, by contrast, earned its first-ever smartphone design wins and appears ready to take up some of the slack, while MediaTek's shipments into smartphones suddenly took off.

After years of racing to deliver more performance, smartphone makers shifted their attention to the low end. In China, the world's largest smartphone market, half of all smartphones sell for less than 1,000 yuan ($160), and some prices have fallen below 700 yuan. Achieving these prices (without carrier subsidies, as in the U.S.) requires low-cost highly integrated processors that companies such as Broadcom, MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Spreadtrum are delivering today.

The high end of the market, in contrast, stagnated—at least until a frenzy of activity in December gave us our first look at both Cortex-A15 and the killer quad-core Krait. For now, the A15 is available only in Samsung's Exynos 5250, which currently appears in just one tablet (Nexus 10) and no smartphones. The quad-Krait chip is called the APQ8064 and is now shipping in the LG Optimus G smartphone. Despite an ongoing shortage of optimized software, quad-core products sprang up like weeds from vendors such as Freescale, Huawei, MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung in the year since Nvidia pioneered the concept.

A trend toward ASIC design threatens even the most successful mobile-processor vendors. For a time, ASIC design was out of fashion, but 2012 saw Huawei and LG deploy their first application processors, Apple ship its first in-house CPU design, and Samsung begin selling phones with its first complete cellular solution. Extending its technology portfolio, Samsung also acquired Wi-Fi startup Nanoradio, as well as Bluetooth combo chips from CSR. These moves are taking design sockets off the open market.

In 2013, the hot new mobile products will include A15-class processors, LTE processors, and NFC chips. ARM's Big.Little approach will be essential to relieve the heat from Cortex-A15, but Qualcomm and Apple should be able to avoid this complexity by using their more efficient CPUs. Quad-core processors will become popular even in midrange Android smartphones. Most of the smartphone-market growth will be at the low end, particularly in China.

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