Qualcomm makes its flagship chip a bit better

Just when you thought the Snapdragon 855 was as good as it gets, Qualcomm has only gone and put a plus on the end of it.

As its name implies, the Snapdragon 855 Plus is a bit better than the Snapdragon 855 chip, which Qualcomm launched amid much fanfare in Hawaii late last year. The marketing top-line for this launch is that it’s all about mobile gaming, with both the CPU and GPU being a bit faster than in the boring old vanilla 855. As with its predecessor the 855 Plus also plays nice with the 5G X50 modem.

“Snapdragon 855 Plus will raise the bar for elite gamers with the increase in CPU and GPU performance and elevate experiences for 5G, gaming, AI and XR, which is something our OEM customers look to us to deliver,” said Kedar Kondap, VP of product management at Qualcomm. “Snapdragon 855 Plus is our most advanced mobile platform to date and will build upon the success of the 2019 Android flagship Snapdragon 855 5G mobile platform.”

Apart from the faster processors there is talk of something called the Snapdragon Elite Gaming Experience, which includes the Vulkan 1.1 Graphics Driver, which Qualcomm compares favourably to Open GL ES and the ‘Game Jank Reducer’, a must-have for anyone whose game jank has reached troublesome levels. As if that’s not enough this SoC features the fourth generation of Qualcomm’s AI engine and some VR/AR features.

LG muscles in on competitive AI chip space

LG has unveiled has developed its own artificial intelligence chip in an attempt to muscle in on this increasingly competitive segment of the semiconductor market.

The AI market is proving to be rewarding for those who can prove their worth, and each day there seems to be a new ‘thought leader’ entering the fray. While there is a feeling AI could benefit application developers (Uber, Cruise, Waymo etc.) and internet companies (Amazon, Google, Microsoft etc.) more than the semiconductor giants, there will be winners and losers in this segment also.

“Our AI C​hip is designed to provide optimized artificial intelligence solutions for future LG products,” said IP Park, CTO of LG Electronics. “This will further enhance the three key pillars of our artificial intelligence strategy – evolve, connect and open – and provide customers with an improved experience for a better life.”

Nvidia might have made a run at this segment in the early days, though considering its experience lies in gaming applications, whether it can mount a serious challenge remains to be seen. Graphcore is one which has attracted investment from the likes of Dell, Microsoft and Samsung, while AMD, Intel, Huawei, Google and Qualcomm (as well as numerous others) are making this a very competitive space.

As with Intel in the PC-era and Qualcomm’s continued dominance in mobile, some might suspect there might be a clear leader in AI also.

LG has stated its chip will feature its proprietary LG Neural Engine to better mimic the neural network of the human brain. The aim is to distinguish space, location, objects and users, while hoping to improve the capabilities of the device by detecting physical and chemical changes in the environment. As with every AI plug, LG is also promoting the ability of on-device processing power.

Looking at the approach from LG, the team are targeting quite a niche aspect of the AI segment; the smart home. This makes sense, as while LG has a smartphone business, the brand is perhaps primarily known for its home appliances range.

During the last earnings call, the LG mobile business continued to struggle in a sluggish and cut-throat market, reporting a 29% year-on-year drop to $1.34 billion, though the home appliance market soared. Revenues and profits soared to record levels, accounting for more than 80% of the total profits for the business over the three months.

Future products, such as washing machines, refrigerators, and air conditioners will be fitted with the devices, as ‘intelligence’ and personalisation become more common themes in more generic and everyday products.

Maybe the smart toilet isn’t that far away after all.

Qualcomm moves to the edge with Cloud AI 100 chip

Mobile chip-maker Qualcomm reckons all the stuff it has learned about processing AI in smartphones will come in handy in datacentres too.

The Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 Accelerator is a special chip designed to process artificial intelligence in the cloud. Specifically Qualcomm seems to think it has an advantage when it comes to ‘AI inference’ processing – i.e. using algorithms that have been trained with loads of data. This stands to reason as it has its chips in millions of smart devices, all of which will have been asked to do some inference processing of their own from time to time.

“Today, Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile platforms bring leading AI acceleration to over a billion client devices,” said Qualcomm Product Management SVP Keith Kressin. “Our all new Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 accelerator will significantly raise the bar for the AI inference processing relative to any combination of CPUs, GPUs, and/or FPGAs used in today’s datacentres. Furthermore, Qualcomm Technologies is now well positioned to support complete cloud-to-edge AI solutions all connected with high-speed and low-latency 5G connectivity.”

The datacentre chips in question will largely be provided by Intel, although Nvidia has done a great job of converting its struggling mobile chip efforts into a successful AI processing operation. Qualcomm claims a 10x performance per watt advantage over incumbent AI inference chips and, while it didn’t call out any competitors in its press release, the predominance of their names in the headlines of other stories covering this launch makes it likely that has been the angle behind the scenes.

BT shows off its shiny new Nokia silicon

UK telco BT is one of the first customers for Nokia’s catchily-named 7750 SR-14s IP routing platform, which features its special FP4 chip.

Nokia first announced all this shiny new core gear a couple of years ago, but it looks like the sales cycle for this sort of thing is fairly protracted. So this is an important deal win for Nokia, but perhaps even more so for BT as it’s a clear statement of intent when it comes to investing in its core network. Apparently traffic through the BT network is growing by 40% annually so it needs to show it can handle it.

“BT’s FTTP footprint is growing on a daily basis, and we are launching 5G this year in the busiest parts of 16 of the UK’s busiest cities,” said Howard Watson, BT Group CTIO. “These technologies create an amazing customer experience, and drive people to watch more, play more and share more. We have to stay ahead of the massive traffic growth that this will bring, and Nokia are a key part of that, giving us the capacity and automation that we need.”

“Nokia’s 7750 SR-s platform, based on our FP4 silicon, will offer BT’s network the enhanced capabilities and automation needed to address continuously mounting capacity demands as it moves toward 5G,” said Sri Reddy, Co-President of IP/Optical Networks at Nokia. “Our exclusive partnership will allow BT’s converged core network to grow, and move to a programmable, insight-driven network architecture, creating a platform for BT’s growth to continue as demand for its services in FTTP and 5G expands.”

As you can see there’s a fair bit of buzzword-dropping in the canned quotes. The significance of FTTP and 5G in this context essentially amounts to the fact that network traffic is likely to keep growing rapidly for quite a while. For Nokia this is a juicy deal win in a core network market that, admittedly, is largely denied to one of its biggest competitors.

Huawei launches its own 5G chip

Huawei doesn’t feel like waiting for chip companies to get their act together on 5G so it has decided to make one of its own.

The Balong 5000 was launched in Beijing today. It supports all the previous generations of cellular technology as well as all the 5G frequencies. Huawei says it can deliver 4.6 Gbps at sub-6 Ghz and 6.5 Gbps over millimeter wave. It also claims to be the first chip to support both standalone and non-standalone 5G architectures and the first to support V2X communications.

“The Balong 5000 will open up a whole new world to consumers,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group. “It will enable everything to sense, and will provide the high-speed connections needed for pervasive intelligence.”

Huawei also launched the 5G CPR Pro, a 5G router that uses wifi 6 technology to claim speeds of almost 5 Gbps. “Powered by the Balong 5000, the Huawei 5G CPE Pro enables consumers to access networks more freely and enjoy an incredibly fast connected experience,” said Yu. “Huawei has an integrated set of capabilities across chips, devices, cloud services, and networks. Building on these strengths, as the leader of the 5G era, we will bring an inspired, intelligent experience to global consumers in every aspect of their lives.”

Not content with attacking the consumer market, Huawei also launched the Tiangang 5G base station chip. It too lays claim to having all the bells and whistles, including the ability to control 64 beamforming channels, enhanced computing capacity and greater power efficiency.

“Huawei now has industry-leading capabilities to deliver end-to-end 5G, with simplified 5G networks and simplified operations & maintenance,” said said Ryan Ding, Huawei Executive Director of the Board and Carrier Business Group CEO. “We are leading the commercial rollout of 5G, and building a mature industry ecosystem.”

These launches come at a good time for Huawei, considering all the negative publicity it has been getting recently. Yu used the launch event to make some pretty bullish statements, including his belief that Huawei will overtake Samsung to become the world’s number one smartphone vendor before long. He also teased the launch of a foldable 5G phone at MWC in a month’s time.

Qualcomm claims first multi-vendor C-V2X demo in China

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm is pushing hard to be a key player in cellular communications between vehicles and the rest of the world.

The somewhat forced abbreviation for this sort of thing is C-V2X (cellular vehicle to everything) and the Qualcomm 9150 chipset is designed to enable it. In partnership with Chinese firm Datang Telecom Group Qualcomm has claimed the first demonstration of multi-chipset vendor C-V2X direct communication interoperability.

“This interoperability test conducted with Qualcomm Technologies is of great importance and is a milestone for the industry as it is the first chip level PC5 Mode 4 interoperability test, which demonstrated the maturity and readiness of commercial deployment for C-V2X technology,” said Yingmin Wang, CTO of Datang Telecom Group.

“Achieving this milestone with Datang is quite significant as it exemplifies the technology maturity to support C-V2X commercial deployments starting in 2019,” said Nakul Duggal, VP of Product Management at Qualcomm. “With our long history of wireless leadership in China, and close collaborations with the automotive and telecom industries, we look forward to continued work alongside leaders in China as we collectively advance towards the commercial reality of safer and more connected vehicles.”

This is all compatible with 3GPP Release 14 C-V2X direct communications (PC5) Mode 4, otherwise known as LTE-V2X. The demo used the Qualcomm 9150 chipset and Datang’s DMD31 LTE-V2X module, using the 5.9 GHz spectrum, which has been set aside for this sort of thing. One of the key use-cases will vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that is needed for things like automated collision avoidance and autonomous driving in general.

Qualcomm teases next-gen 5G mobile platform

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm has not quite unveiled its next major mobile platform, which is designed to be paired with its X50 5G modem.

The announcement, which didn’t offer much detail, seemed designed to maintain buzz ahead of the anticipated launch of 5G devices in a few months’ time. The platform doesn’t even have a name yet, but it’s safe to assume it will be Snapdragon followed by a four digit number. We do know it will be manufactured on the 7nm process node, which will ensure it packs more of a processing punch in a smaller package than its 10nm predecessor.

“We are very pleased to be working with OEMs, operators, infrastructure vendors, and standards bodies across the world, and are on track to help launch the first 5G mobile hotspots by the end of 2018, and smartphones using our next-generation mobile platform in the first half of 2019,” said Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm president. “Qualcomm Technologies’ continued leadership in research and engineering allows for a future of increased innovation across multiple sectors as 5G connectivity becomes ubiquitous.”

The full reveal of Qualcomm’s next flagship mobile SoC will come later this year. It comes at a time when the ARM ecosystem is competing harder than ever with x86 chips in the PC and server markets. With the top three smartphone vendors all producing their own SoCs, how Qualcomm positions the Snapdragon platform to exploit non-smartphone opportunities will be key.

S9 halts Samsung run of progress but semiconductors stand strong

Samsung’s run of reporting record quarterly results has come to an end as sluggish sales for its flagship S9 device hit a wall.

Analysts had been predicting this would be a tough quarter for the device, some believing this would be the weakest launch for years, and it appears the fears have become reality. With sales of roughly $52.1 billion for the three months, a decline of 4% year-on-year, Samsung at least offered somewhat accurate guidance in a note a couple of weeks ago.

“Second quarter revenue fell due to softer sales of smartphones and display panels, despite robust demand for memory chips,” said Samsung in the earnings statement. “The continued strength of the Company’s memory business contributed to the higher operating profit. Net profit was little changed from a year earlier due to higher income tax.”

While this is certainly not an ideal situation for the business, at least it is not alone. The iPhoneX has also been experiencing sluggish sales, as the continued trend of flat innovation and limited differentiation continues. Apple might have been able to avoid the dip over the last couple of years, selling on its brand more than product innovation, but it seems not even the iLifers can continue to blindly follow the iChief down the trail of mediocrity any more. No-one is permanently exempt of global trends.

For the short-term future, the story is unlikely to change significantly, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With 5G networks set to be switched on over the next couple of years, manufacturers will soon be able to begin a refreshment cycle of devices, with flagship products being marketed as ‘5G Ready’. The consumers insatiable appetite for data and the need for speed will likely spur on the need to update devices.

This might not be the best time for the devices division, Samsung does at least have the burgeoning, if not as sexy, semiconductor unit. The NAND and DRAM markets continued to be big earners for Samsung, despite commenting on weak seasonal demand. With global cloud trends continuing to surge, front-line suppliers to the data centre industry are not going to be going hungry any time soon.

For servers, demand for SSD for data centres is forecast to remain strong, while for enterprise, adoption of high-density server SSD over 8TB is expected to continue. The adoption of SSD is expected to expand into more sectors and all product segments are projected to use more high-density eStorage, perhaps explaining the South Korean drive for innovation in the semiconductor market.

According to Yonhap News Agency, the South Korean government has pledged roughly $1.34 billion to the semiconductor industry over the next ten years, to support the country’s position in the global standings, but also to capitalise on the expected growth in the segment. The semiconductor space is considered to account for roughly 20% of the country’s exports.

“In order to have South Korea maintain its reputation as the world’s top semiconductor powerhouse, we will support the development of the chip industry by focusing on three strategies,” said Paik Un-gyu, Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy.

The three pillars of the strategy are the development of next-generation materials that will replace existing memory chips, the seeking of combined growth of fabless and foundry businesses, and hosting production lines of global semiconductor companies. Samsung will almost undoubtedly benefit from government interest in this area.

Samsung’s flagship business unit, its smartphone division, has had a rough couple of years, owing to a global slowdown on devices and also its own engineering ‘difficulties’, but this decline is not something which we should be surprised at; the writing has been on the wall as consumers start to favour refurbished or second devices, while also extending the lifecycle of their current devices. But on the positive side, Samsung is collecting profits through diversification.

Investors will moan about the deficit in sales and profits, but a burgeoning semiconductor division and a device refreshment cycle on the horizon, it could be in a worse position.

Huawei shows its 5G hand, including a 2019 5G handset launch

At a recent event Huawei made a number of announcements regarding its strategic direction for the next few years, with an emphasis on 5G.

The event was Huawei’s own Global Analyst Summit in Shenzhen – the 15th such occasion. It managed to fit some substance in among the usual self-congratulation and miscellaneous corporate propaganda and, while we weren’t there, we spoke to Counterpoint Analyst Neil Shah who was and who has been tweeting prodigiously throughout.

The tweet that most caught our eye was the announcement that Huawei will be launching a 5G smartphone in the second half of 2019 running its own 5G chip. “This points towards their Mate flagship model which launches normally in September timeframe,” Shah told Telecoms.com. “Furthermore, the first wave of 5G devices will be routers, CPE followed by mobile hotpots in early 2019 with their own chipset and then 5G smartphones and possibly an ARM based laptop from the in-house Kirin branded SoCs.”

Huawei seems to be pretty handy at SoCs these days, with Shah saying it pretty much caught up with Qualcomm from 4.5G onwards. “Almost two in three Huawei smartphones sold in Q4 2017, had an in-house Kirin branded SoC, rest was Qualcomm or Mediatek,” said Shah. Another thing Huawei shared was that building a 5G smartphone is more challenging than 3G or 4G as these will include multi-modes (2G,3G,4G,4.9G, 5G SA/NSA) and mmWave support, which makes the RF integration and positioning more complicated.

“Furthermore, a 5G phone needs 5x more processing power, 2.5x more power consumption and 1.3x board size. So Huawei is working on building ASIC 5G chips for smartphones, which is phenomenal! ASIC chips are used for bitcoin mining, so maybe in future you can mine bitcoin on your phone.

The silicon side of things from Huawei often goes under the radar, perhaps because it’s involved in so much other stuff. “They have been almost on par with Qualcomm in terms of performance (from my personal experience) and in terms of technology not far behind especially 4G onwards due to growing share of 4G and 5G patents and IP,” said Shah.

Coincidentally Counterpoint has recently published its global 5G smartphone forecast, which anticipates fully ramping in 2021 to exceed 100 million units shipped. “Growth in the early commercial phase of 5G is expected to be low due to several factors,” said Shah’s colleague Tom Kang. “There are still forward looking 5G standards that are unconfirmed, creating uncertainty around product and service opportunities. We also expect 5G chips to have a higher price point which will initially drive the cost of devices up. 5G capable devices will be premium only in the beginning. Also only a handful of countries will be deploying the first 5G infrastructure.”

Counterpoint 5G smartphone forecast

Huawei also seemed to strike a cautious note on the short-term prospects for 5G, with commercial use-cases also not expected to make a serious appearance until 2021. “In near to mid-term Fixed Wireless Access is going to be huge as an alternative to fibre and DSL, especially in NSA mode,” said Shah. “Post 2024 in Standalone mode, AR,VR gaming, autonomous vehicles, intelligent manufacturing and smart grids which require less than 10ms end-to-end latency will be key.”

The other main pillar of 5G is IoT and Huawei seems to be serving up some pretty competitive silicon in this area too. “Huawei has pioneered NB-IoT networking and is driving the ecosystem from chip (Boudica) to platform (LiteOS) to cloud (Huawei IoT cloud),” said Shah. “Huawei’s upcoming Boudica 150 in Q2 2018will integrate MCU and modem into one single chip with a target cost of under $2, which is very disruptive considering the average LTE-M to 4G chip goes for $10 to $70. Also it will allow faster time-to-market, bringing it down from months to weeks from an interoperability and testing perspective. So far most of the chipsets in the IoT modules have been discrete (as opposed to integrated SoC) solutions.

On top of what we learned from Shah, Huawei has chucked out a couple of press releases from the event. The headline propaganda was Huawei’s ‘vision for an intelligent world of the future’. “In an age defined by greatness, Huawei aspires to become a great company,” said Huawei Rotating Chairman, Eric Xu. “We want to help mankind take its next step forward. This is the basis of our new vision and mission: Bring digital to every person, home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world.”

To underline these lofty aspirations Huawei has published a report entitled Global Industry Vision 2025, which features a bunch of predictions and forecasts distilled in to three main ‘visions’. Firstly it sees 40 billion personal smart devices and 100 billion connections around the world by 2025. Secondly it anticipates 60 million vehicles will be connected to 5G networks and 100% of new vehicles connected to the internet by that time. Lastly Huawei predicts that the digital economy will be worth US$23 trillion in seven years.

Huawei likes these big corporate extravaganzas and, while there is usually a fair bit of forgettable hot air, they also serve as a pretty substantial statement of intent and throw down the gauntlet to its competitors. Ericsson and Nokia used to do more of this sort of thing and must feel under pressure to raise their game once more each time one of these is held.

More semiconductor consolidation as Marvell buys Cavium for $6 billion

US networking and wireless chip company Marvell is dropping $6 billion on Cavium, which also makes chips that do similar stuff.

Both companies work largely behind the scenes, designing SoCs that control things like storage units, networking products and wireless connectivity. Here’s how the announcement describes the deal.

‘The transaction combines Marvell’s portfolio of leading HDD and SSD storage controllers, networking solutions and high-performance wireless connectivity products with Cavium’s portfolio of leading multi-core processing, networking communications, storage connectivity and security solutions.’

The rest of it is the usual M&A talk about synergies, scale and end-to-end solutions. “This is an exciting combination of two very complementary companies that together equal more than the sum of their parts,” said Marvell CEO Matt Murphy.

“This combination expands and diversifies our revenue base and end markets, and enables us to deliver a broader set of differentiated solutions to our customers. Syed Ali has built an outstanding company, and I’m excited that he is joining the Board. I’m equally excited that Cavium’s Co-founder Raghib Hussain and Vice President of IC Engineering Anil Jain will also join my senior leadership team. Together, we all will be able to deliver immediate and long-term value to our customers, employees and shareholders.”

“Individually, our businesses are exceptionally strong, but together, we will be one of the few companies in the world capable of delivering such a comprehensive set of end-to-end solutions to our combined customer base,” said Cavium Co-founder and CEO, Syed Ali. “Our potential is huge. We look forward to working closely with the Marvell team to ensure a smooth transition and to start unlocking the significant opportunities that our combination creates.”

As they said Murphy will be the CEO of the combined company, with Ali adopting a more strategic role as an advisor and board member. The semiconductor sector has been subject to consolidation for some time, with the mega-acquisition attempt by Broadcom of Qualcomm set to be one of the biggest acquisitions ever if they pull it off.