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Year in Review: Smartphone Chips Get Bigger GPUs

January 19, 2021

Author: Aakash Jani

Smartphone shipments cratered in 2020, with sales declining 20% in the first two quarters. Facing the financial strain of the pandemic, users were reluctant to up­grade their phones. After a partial re­bound in the second half, full-year sales should be down about 12%. The rebound will likely con­tin­ue in 2021, with shipments returning to pre-pandemic levels. The pre­mium market faces the strongest headwinds.

But 5G was a bright spot for chip vendors, with handset sales reaching an estimated 220 million units in 2020. Expanding midrange and low-cost selection fueled this growth. These low-cost phones are particularly popular in nations like China, India, and Vietnam. Furthermore, LTE networks in these nations offer poor data rates, so the jump to 5G realized larger improvements relative to the rest of the globe. Nearly 545 million 5G phones are expected to ship in 2021, more than doubling the 2020 number. This growth is far faster than for LTE (4G) or any previous G.

In addition to dampening smartphone sales, the pandemic accelerated some trends and spawned others. As other entertainment options diminished, users flocked to popular apps such as Instagram and TikTok to pass the time. This phenomenon drove architectural changes to image processors. The uptick in casual and hard-core mobile gaming also pushed GPUs to greater throughput and expanded the use of heterogeneous computing. Vendors expanded GPU die area by expanding core count or ALU width to drive higher shader rates and faster screen-refresh rates.

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