Can Qualcomm maintain its momentum in the mobile SoC segment?

Last year saw Qualcomm eviscerating other manufacturers when it comes to the mobile SoC segment, but this year, it faces new challengers. Intel will launch its fastest mobile processor, and Nvidia has unveiled its ambitious 64-bit Denver core that comes with 192 CUDA cores. Qualcomm is also set to make revisions to its high-end offerings, so it should be interesting to see which manufacturer fares better.

Qualcomm

64-bit architecture set to go mainstream on mobile in 2014

Given the fast pace at which the mobile hardware industry is growing, it is no wonder, then, that this year’s offerings are much faster, better and more energy efficient. This will be the year during which 64-bit hardware becomes the norm, with Qualcomm launching its first 64-bit entry-level offering in the Snapdragon 410. The Snapdragon 410 is aimed at the lower-end market, but Qualcomm should be launching a 64-bit variant in the Snapdragon 8XX line soon.

Nvidia has its sights set on Qualcomm

Nvidia has also announced its first custom designed mobile processor, which is called Denver. Denver is featured in Nvidia’s latest Tegra K1, and is based on ARM’s v8 64-bit instruction set. Denver is a dual-core offering, which means that Nvidia is sticking to creating more efficient cores than just creating a quad-core offering that is a power-hog. The Tegra K1 also brings 192-cores to the mobile platform, and brings features like DirectX 11 and hardware tessellation to mobile devices.

NVIDIA Tegra K1 SoC

Nvidia is offering two variations of K1. One is the custom designed 64-bit Denver core, and the other is a tweaked version of ARM’s v7 based Cortex A15 cores. This version features four higher-clocked Cortex A15 cores and a fifth low-frequency Cortex A15 core that is designed to be in use for low intensive tasks. Both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions feature the same GPU, which is the fastest ever included on a mobile SoC. The mobile GPU uses the same architecture seen on Nvidia’s desktop variants.

Intel, Samsung and LG are also going to be a threat

Meanwhile, Intel is also set to join the fray, with its Bay Trail processors set to be available in consumer devices during the second quarter. Intel has been uncharacteristically late to the mobile segment, but if its Bay Trail benchmarks are any indication, it has used the time effectively. A major difference when it comes to Bay Trail over other offerings in this segment is the fact that it is being built on a 22nm manufacturing process. Usually, this would be good news, but it was found a few years ago that TSMC’s 28nm hardware was performing better than Intel’s 22nm hardware.

Samsung Exynos 5 Octa

LG and Samsung are also hard at work creating their in-house SoCs, with LG set to launch its first mobile SoC dubbed Odin later this year with the LG G3. Samsung is similarly said to be launching a 64-bit Exynos 6 SoC that will make its debut in the Galaxy S5.

So what does this new hardware mean for the end-users? In one sentence: More power. 64-bit architecture should mean more memory addressing, and this allows manufacturers to create hardware that makes better utilization of available system resources. 64-bit also allows for more RAM, so we could theoretically see 4 GB RAM module, like the one Samsung recently created, in mobile devices this year. 4 GB RAM on a mobile is overkill, but then again, this could be the year console-quality games make their way into Android. In that scenario, 4 GB RAM doesn’t seem absurd.

Qualcomm has the lead for now, but can it be sustained?

More and more manufacturers are taking ARM’s reference design and tweaking it. This gives them the ability to customize their hardware more. Qualcomm has done this very effectively with its Krait line of processors. Qualcomm takes an ARM’s instruction set, and adds its own innovations into the mix, like wide LTE modems and a fast GPU. The result is a line of mobile SoCs so well-designed that even Samsung uses Qualcomm’s offerings in LTE enabled markets.

Another factor going in Qualcomm’s favor is that its high-end offerings do not cost much more than what everyone else is offering. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 price in India is Rs. 43,457 for the Note 3 variant that uses Samsung’s Exynos SoC. The Note 3 variant that comes with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 also costs the same amount of money.

Qualcomm won a significant victory by offering LTE in its hardware, but this year will see a lot of other manufacturers doing the same. MediaTek is set to offer LTE-enabled SoCs to budget handset manufacturers, and other manufacturers, like Intel and Nvidia, also have LTE enabled SoCs that will launch later this year. It sure is going to be an exciting year.