Comms chips

Qualcomm, Nvidia Face Off in the Core

This month's Consumer Electronics Show was a coming-out party for smart phones and tablets sporting dual-Central Processing Units (CPUs), headlined by Nvidia Corp. (Nasdaq: NVDA)'s Tegra 2. It set the stage for what will be a year dominated by faster, more efficient chipsets powering more capable 4G devices.

"You will see more and more dual-core phones," says Matt Wuebbling, director of product marketing for the mobile business at Nvidia. "They will end up taking up the landscape of smart phones."

According to Strategy Analytics Inc. , the takeover will start slowly with 15 percent of smart phones sold in 2011 sporting dual-core or better, a number that will rise to 45 percent by 2015.

Nvidia, which has traditionally built for the PC space, was the first to the mobile market with Tegra 2 popping up in three new smart phones, the Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) Atrix, the Long Term Evolution (LTE) Droid Bionic and the LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) Optimus 2X. The CPU will also be powering 10 tablets to be launched later this year, including the 4G Moto Xoom and the LG G-Slate.

As dual-core devices become more common, however, competition in the mobile chipset space will heat up. Right now, Nvidia is a step ahead, but it's already butting heads with rivals including Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), which has its own stock of 4G Android smart phones and tablets, featuring 1.2GHz Snapdragon dual-core CPUs, planned for 2011. (See Intel, Nvidia Make Nice for $1.5B.)

Competition in the core
Nvidia's goal is to maintain its lead, touting quad-core while its competitors are tackling dual. As Wuebbling pointed out, Nvidia comes from a PC background where the cadence for innovation is much faster than in the traditional mobile phone space.

On the flip side, Qualcomm's VP of Product Management Raj Talluri says his company's processors are built from the ground up for mobile. Snapdragon is built asynchronously so that the two cores can run different speeds independently. They only use enough power to get optimal performance without draining the battery, Talluri says.

"We just licensed instructions from ARM and built our own processor from scratch," Talluri says. "We design a lot of custom transistors and circuitry that lets us combine the dual-core in a very power-efficient matter. Each is very low power and they can go to a much higher clock speed without consuming much power."

Plus, what Qualcomm is sacrificing in its late-market entry, it should make up for with its size and breadth. The company also provides the cellular connectivity in the handsets and supports 4G today. (See Qualcomm Rides Verizon LTE.)

"If you're Apple or someone making a 4G smart phone, Qualcomm is a pretty compelling partner," says Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group . Two are better than one
Right now, smart phones powered by dual-core CPUs will carry a higher price tag, but as competition heats up and the chips become mainstream, prices will come down.

That's because essentially all of LTE's killer apps -- multiplayer gaming, multitasking and 1080p HD video streaming -- play to dual-core processors' main strengths. Gwennap says doubling the CPUs in a handset will give the biggest boost to Web-browsing speed out the gate. Owing to the extra processing unit, dual cores greatly improve multitasking too, letting users run multiple apps, download files and browse the Web without draining the battery.

"With multiple cores, the OS can figure out which tasks or processors to put on different CPUs," Wuebbling says, resulting in a twofold improvement in multitasking performance and Web-browsing speed.

One of Tegra 2's biggest strengths will be in gaming. Wuebbling says that it makes mobile gaming five times faster, letting users play multiplayer games with friends who are on PCs or gaming consoles. It may, however, take a while for the software to catch up, since it has to be redesigned to take advantage of the second processor in a phone or tablet.

For Qualcomm, Talluri says the software advantage is huge for developers who have already built to single-core Snapdragon chips, because the dual-core is constructed in the exact same way.

That is the catch for software developers. Dual-core may be the name of the game in smart phones and tablets today, but soon enough it will be a tri- or even quad-core arms race. They have to build their apps with the ability to scale to a growing number of cores. Software makers, like handset makers and wireless operators, have to prep themselves for what will be a never-ending move to more powerful and capable smart phones. (See Marvell Demos Quad Core.)

"It's not just getting ready for dual core, but also tri and quad," Gwennap says. "The software and app developers better design their software to handle that."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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