Qualcomm launches a bunch of chips in China

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm used the first day of Mobile World Congress Shanghai 2018 to launch new chips for smartphones and watches.

Qualcomm has the market for third party smartphone SoCs sewn up at the premium end, but Chinese chip-maker Mediatek, among others, is giving it a run for its money in the middle and lower tiers. It’s presumably no coincidence, then, that Qualcomm chose this event to make its mass market chip announcements.

The Snapdragon 800 range is all about the premium tier, then we have 600s for the high tier and 400s for the mid tier. Qualcomm just announced the Snapdragon 632, 439 and 429, which will all be a bit better than their predecessors at things like performance, battery life, and that sort of thing.

“The introduction of Snapdragon 632, 439 and 429 builds off Qualcomm Technologies’ highest-selling mobile platforms and provides users with increased performance and power efficiency, superior graphics, AI capabilities and enhanced connectivity features,” said Kedar Kondap, VP of product management at Qualcomm. “We’re excited to offer these new platforms with enhanced features to our OEMs and consumers.”

The 632 SoC features a Kryo 250 CPU, an Adreno 506 GPU, the X9 LTE modem, and supports a 24MP camera. The 439 has an Adreno 505 GPU and the 429 has an Adreno 504 GPU. No branded CPU cores are detailed, which probably means they use off-the-shelf ARM cores. They support 21MP and 16MP cameras, respectively.

Qualcomm’s other announcement at the show was a new chip designed specifically for the kind of cheaper smart watch you might give to a child. The Snapdragon Wear 2500 Platform has features like extended battery life and low power location tracking so you can keep an eye on where your kids are. The platform also has an LTE modem and a special version of Android designed for kids.

“If you look at the targeted kid watch and tracker segment the growth in these designed-for-kids but highly capable devices, is very exciting, and customers are seeing wide spread global demand,” said Anthony Murray, GM of Voice, Music and Wearables at Qualcomm. “Qualcomm has helped to drive this fast expansion of 4G kid watches with its Snapdragon Wear 2100 platform and there are more than 10 devices commercially available today through retail and carriers,”

“With this next generation Snapdragon Wear 2500 platform, we are supporting new performance and features that customers will be able to use to create even more fun features and compelling use cases for these connected 4G kid watches and with our dedicated kid watch platform we aim to deliver a robust foundation that supports a rich and engaging experience for children.”

There is lots of talk about the whole platform and how great it is for this sort of thing. It supports limited camera, AI voice assistants and name-drops NXP NTC technology that can be handy for giving kids some limited digital wallet functionality. The marketing for these sorts of devices is understandably aimed at parents and talks about things like fitness tracking too. It’s not clear, however, how much traction there is for kid-oriented smart watches and for them to take off they would probably need to be pretty cheap.

The Qualcomm M&A plot thickens with increased NXP bid

Chip giant Qualcomm has upped its bid for NXP in a bid to placate some investors and maybe complicate Broadcom’s attempted hostile takeover.

Qualcomm’s bid for NXP back in October 2016 was accepted by the NXP board, so you’d think that would be that. But there were some grumbles from institutional investors at the time and the NXP share price has improved a further 20% or so since the bid was announced, so Qualcomm decided to up the bid from $110 to $127.50, which equates to around $6 billion.

A possible by-product of this move may be to complicate Broadcom’s hostile acquisition, which was originally based on the original NXP purchase price. Qualcomm’s board is clearly not keen on the Broadcom move and, with only China left to approve the move, presumably thinks it has an even stronger argument in favour of remaining independent with NXP on board.

“Qualcomm’s leading SoC capabilities and technology roadmap, coupled with NXP’s differentiated position in Automotive, Security and IoT, offers a compelling value proposition,” said Steve Mollenkopf, Qualcomm CEO. “With only one regulatory approval remaining, we are working hard to complete this transaction expeditiously. Our integration planning is on track and we expect to realize the full benefits of this transaction for our customers, employees and stockholders.”

“The acquisition of NXP will enable us to accelerate our growth strategy,” said Tom Horton, Presiding Director of the Qualcomm Board. “The Board unanimously believes this is an attractive acquisition at this price for Qualcomm stockholders based on NXP’s recent strong financial performance, the growth in key strategic areas such as Auto and IoT and our high confidence in management’s ability to execute upon the synergy opportunities.”

Paying more for NXP may put off Broadcom if it doesn’t think Qualcomm is getting good value for money, but that in turn may antagonise existing Qualcomm shareholders, especially the ones tempted by Broadcom’s offer. The balancing act continues and Broadcom’s next move may be critical.

Qualcomm claims world’s first 2 Gbps LTE modem

Among the final flurry of announcements to come from Qualcomm’s big 5G day was, curiously enough, a new 4G modem.

The Snapdragon X24 modem claims to be the first to offer 2 gigabits per second throughput, the first to be made on the 7nm manufacturing process (which enable it to do more with less silicon), and the first to support 7x carrier aggregation. The latter allows seven chunks of spectrum to be used in parallel to allow the aforementioned throughput awesomeness.

“As the world’s first announced Gigabit LTE modem to achieve speeds of up to 2 Gbps, the Snapdragon X24 LTE modem sets a major mobile industry milestone, designed to provide enhanced mobile broadband and deliver an extremely important gigabit coverage layer for commercial 5G networks and mobile devices that are expected to start launching in 2019,” said Serge Willenegger, GM of 4G/5G and Industrial IOT at Qualcomm.

“Further expanding on the use of 4×4 and LAA capability, the Snapdragon X24 packs a powerful array of the most advanced 4G LTE technologies commercially available, helping mobile operators to fully mobilize their spectrum assets and maximize the capacity of their Gigabit LTE networks, and mobile device makers to offer consumers a tangible glimpse of our 5G future.”

This was introduced to the assembled commentators in San Diego last week, but we were required to stay silent on the matter until today for some reason. It serves as a timely reminder of several home truths amid the 5G fervor, as Willeneger alluded to. LTE isn’t going anywhere; it will be the primary vector for mobile data for several years yet and even when 5G starts to ramp up LTE will be the fallback technology on the frequent occasions when you’re out of range of a 5G cell, or a leaf gets in the way of the signal or whatever.

It also serves as a reminder that increased speeds are the least exciting part of 5G. 4G is already able to exceed the speeds most people will ever need on mobile devices, and things like capacity, low-latency, massive IoT, etc are more useful innovations. If the X24 performs as advertised it’s likely to be appearing in mobile devices for many years to come.

Apart from the X24, Qualcomm had kept three more announcements up its sleeve until today. One is a new software development kit designed to support the commercialisation of IoT. And then there’s the introduction of Qualcomm Wireless Edge Services, which again is aimed at the IoT ecosystem but this time with the aim of helping with the provision, connection and management of IoT devices. The last PR just reflected on the 5G day and summarised all the good things Qualcomm is doing in the wide, wide world of 5G.

As we’ve written previously this whole exercise seems to have been designed to not just demonstrate Qualcomm’s 5G modem leadership, but also to show what a good job it’s doing of diversifying into the other opportunities expected to be created by 5G, such as IoT, VR and connected cars. It’s especially important for Qualcomm’s current senior management that its investors see this as evidence of how their interests would be best served by keeping the company free from the clutches of Broadcom.

Arm launches dedicated chip designs for machine learning

UK mobile chip design giant Arm has created specialised chip designs specifically for machine learning and object detection.

Arm, which at some stage in the past few months seems to have decided its name is no longer an abbreviation of Advanced RISC Machines and is instead a type of limb, is best known for providing the designs for mobile chips such as applications and baseband processors. As the tech world gets increasingly keen on artificial intelligence and mobile edge computing, it makes sense for Arm to get involved at a silicon level.

This has taken the form of Project Trillium, which is described as ‘a suite of Arm IP including new highly scalable processors that will deliver enhanced machine learning (ML) and neural network (NN) functionality.’ The point of it seems to be to equip mobile devices with a degree of autonomous (as opposed to cloud-based) machine learning capability that they currently lack.

“The rapid acceleration of artificial intelligence into edge devices is placing increased requirements for innovation to address compute while maintaining a power efficient footprint,” said Rene Haas, President of the IP Products Group at Arm. “To meet this demand, Arm is announcing its new ML platform, Project Trillium. New devices will require the high-performance ML and AI capabilities these new processors deliver.”

The main chip design is the ML one, which puts a premium on scalability – presumably meaning more chips equals more ML power. On top of that Arm has launched a distinct design for object detection, which covers things like facial recognition and the detection of other objects via the device’s camera. The two apparently perform even better in combination and better when you throw special Arm neural network software.

Jem Davies, Arm’s GM of ML, has blogged on the launch and unsurprisingly thinks ML is the biggest thing since sliced bread. “In my opinion, the growth of machine learning represents the biggest inflection point in computing for more than a generation,” he blogged. “It will have a massive effect on just about every segment I can think of. People ask me which segments will be affected by ML, and I respond that I can’t think of one that won’t be.”

As a scuba diver Davies chose a diving illustration to show how cool life could be when everything has ML chips embedded in it. You could have a heads-up-display in your mask that provides real-time augmented reality information and even automated action, such as defensive counter-measures if a shark should suddenly turn up unannounced.

Arm ML OD AR

AI and the various other bits of computer cleverness that are generally associated with it, are very much in vogue in the mobile space these days. We’ve been broken in gently by the cloud-driven smart assistants like Siri, but enabling much of that processing to be done locally offers clear advantages. On the back of Project Trillium expect chip vendors, and consequently devices vendors, to be offering novel AI features before long.

Apple rumoured to be ditching Qualcomm chips

A couple of months back we wondered when would be the breaking point in the Apple/Qualcomm relationship, and now reports are emerging that time is now.

It should be noted that these reports are guesswork from analysts as opposed to internal sources, though the rumours have been enough to send the Qualcomm stock price downwards. Nomura Instinet has predicted Apple will be dropping Qualcomm from its supply chain for 2018 in favour of a cheaper chip from Intel. The news sent Qualcomm share price down 6.5%, though there was a bit of a recovery in overnight trading.

Considering the dodgy track record Intel has had in the mobile space, this would certainly be a boost. Nomura Instinet estimates Apple would save in the region of $100 million should it shake up its supply chain. And while it might be good news for Intel and Apple, Qualcomm would suffer in the region of $400 million should the guess prove to be accurate. Qualcomm’s latest forecast already includes this possibility.

Of course such a breakup has been on the horizon for some time. Two companies cannot continually sue each other without causing some damage to the relationship. It was always going to be a matter of time before the two parted ways, especially when the lawsuits moved from IP disputes and onto cases which would have impacted sales. When Qualcomm wrote to regulators in China and the US trying to get iPhone sales banned, we couldn’t see any way back for this relationship.

Such a development would certainly be a bit of bad news for investors, and considering the intentions of Broadcom, there might be a few who become more interested in the hostile takeover bid. Should Apple be lost as a customer, the Qualcomm business will start to look less stable. It certainly isn’t the end of the road, but it is a major loss. Qualcomm investors are after the best possible position for their money, and considering Qualcomm’s issues over the last couple of years (fines, investigations, lawsuits etc.) this might be a good time to take an offer and look elsewhere to invest.

Another twist might be a reduction in the price Broadcom is willing to pay per share. It was only over the weekend a higher offer being tabled to acquire Qualcomm was rumoured, but should Apple be lost as a customer it might well be reversed. Sources cautioned Broadcom CEO Hock Tan could change his mind and this is certainly a factor which will be taken into consideration when putting a value on a business.

Perhaps there will be a couple of panicked phone calls over the next couple of days. Nail down the $80 share price which Broadcom is considering before they decide an Appleless Qualcomm is worth much less.

Samsung fuels chip launch with AI and speed promises

Ahead of CES in Las Vegas, Samsung has launched its latest blitz on the AI processor market, unveiling the Exynos 9 Series 9810.

Built with the upcoming AI revolution in mind, Samsung has said the chip features a 2.9 GHz custom CPU, a 6CA LTE modem and deep-learning processing capabilities. Build on Samsung’s second-generation 10-nanometer FinFET process, the team will hope to continue the very healthy progress this division has been making over recent months.

“The Exynos 9 Series 9810 is our most innovative mobile processor yet, with our third-generation custom CPU, ultrafast gigabit LTE modem and deep learning-enhanced image processing,” said Ben Hur, VP of System LSI Marketing at Samsung.

“The Exynos 9810 will be a key catalyst for innovation in smart platforms such as smartphones, personal computing and automotive for the upcoming AI era.”

Looking specifically at the LTE modem, Samsung claims it will be able to support 6x carrier aggregation for download speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps, and upload speeds of 200 Mbps. Should this turn out to be accurate, this would comfortably exceed todays maximums, now we just need devices which can support them.

Now the technical bit is over, the new chip will most likely feature in the next Galaxy S flagship device, powering features such as facial recognition and object detection, both of which are fast gaining mass market acceptance.

Energy efficiency will likely be another prominent feature for the phone, a selling point which has historically been popular with the Samsung marketing team. Considering the PR headache Apple is facing with its batteries, Samsung might be able to benefit from the misery.