Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from RCR Wireless News’ May Special Edition, “Enabling the Mobile Revolution: Mobile Chips, Devices and Accessories.” The 80-page special edition is available here.
Integrated Circuits (ICs) are an integral part of the mobile handset semiconductor market especially with the increasing demand for application processors within the wireless marketplace. In fact, the segment has one of the largest growth and development potentials in the industry due to an almost insatiable appetite for ever-growing levels of multi-functionality in next-generation handsets.
According to market research outfit In-Stat, the mobile market for merchant processing is expected to grow at a 22.3% compounded annual growth rate through 2013, with the highest total unit growth from handheld applications like smartphones and mobile Internet devices (MIDs).
The estimated value of the processing, graphics/multimedia, and baseband functions will increase at double-digit growth rates, with processors garnering the highest value at $33.1 billion, according to analyst estimates.
Merchant market processors are so valuable because they offer high levels of integration and performance while reducing the device OEMs’ cost and time to market.
Such is the multitude of major semiconductor components used in mobile handsets today that it would be quite beyond the scope of any one article to cover them all; therefore this ecosystem roundup will focus on mobile processors, chipsets and ICs focused around applications, media and graphics.
Today’s 3G cellular services emphasize features such as mobile video, music, advanced gaming, imaging, videoconferencing and television. This in turn has put pressure on chip manufacturers to provide baseband chipset architectures that are able to support the 3G cellular modem and its associated functions within a very low power envelope.
This ecosystem roundup will explore the various important application processor technology being manufactured today, including a look at all the relevant competitors in the space. It will also take into account the two major competing processor architectures, ARMs and the x86 platform.
X86 vs. the ARM platform
X86 processors are the dominant architecture for the PC space and x86 is found in most netbooks and notebooks, while the ARM architecture dominates the mobile handheld space which requires all-day battery life.
Up until very recently, x86 held a great performance advantage, making sacrifices on power consumption and integration, while the ARM architecture offered higher levels of integration and lower levels of power consumption at a performance cost.
Both architectures, however, have become increasingly competitive and will continue to challenge the other over the course of the next couple of years as ARM scales up its performance and x86 makers scale down power consumption.
Moore’s Law, which is less of a law and more of an empirical observation by Intel’s late, great Gordon Moore, states that the transistor density of integrated circuits doubles every two years.
Moore’s Law continues to drive transistor characteristics to smaller design geometries and transistor densities to new highs, but there are still thousands of options to consider when designing a chip and a system.
Some of the major challenges chip designers must consider in their work include integration complexity, power consumption, performance, cost, manufacturability, die size, time-to-market and reusability of the design.
The job of a chip designer, however, includes several inherent paradoxes, namely that increased performance typically draws more power and heat; that larger die sizes increase costs; and that increased complexity can have a negative impact on wafer yields.
Even chip packaging is becoming critical to mobile chip design, especially in terms of being able to integrate multiple dies into a single package, stack die in a single package and even stacking chips themselves. The industry uses three main chip packaging technologies including: Multi-Chip Module (MCM) which is the use of multiple dies arranged on a single substrate; System-in-Package (SiP) which uses multiple dies stacked vertically on a single substrate; And Package-on-Package (PoP) which combines multiple chips into a single vertical stack through external interconnects.
Mobile processor make-up
Merchant market mobile processors, are analogous to the central processing units (CPUs) used in PCs. They typically combine applications processors, a CPU and graphics/multimedia acceleration into a single chip. Baseband processors also combine baseband connectivity with the CPU and often the graphics and multimedia acceleration into a single chip.
Although all three types of processors have different attributes, they can all be used as the main processor within a mobile device that is connected and programmable. That is why these functions typically grouped together under the category of merchant market mobile processors. All three can be used independently or together.
Because of the breadth of devices in the mobile segment, one would be hard pressed to find a single processor that could address the needs of the whole market. Even the processors currently on the market typically have several SKUs within their processor family, which offers device designers a broader range of options.
All the processors in the mobile device segment, however, are defined as a system-on-chip (SoC). All are highly complex and typically sport multiple heterogeneous processor cores to cater to higher processing, multimedia and connectivity requirements.
Major semiconductor vendors
The main players in the semiconductor space also dominate the mobile industry, but so popular is the space that a growing number of players have begun targeting their offerings at connected mobile devices. Owing to the significant costs tied in with manufacturing, most chip designers have forgone their own fabs in favor of purpose-built foundries for advanced manufacturing capacity and technology.
While only Intel, AMD, VIA and IBM have an x86 license, any number of processor vendors can and do license ARM cores, as well as the firm’s interconnect technology. This technology can then be merged with companies’ in-house IP to develop customized processors.
ARM – The architecture and the company
ARM is both a company and processor architecture. ARM, the company, has developed a series of RISC processor cores based on the ARM instruction set. The ARM architecture is a design belonging to ARM that can be used to build CPUs that can process around 2 Dhrystone MIPS/MHz. That works out to almost 2000 DMIPs/GHz, which is fairly close to the type of processing power reached by Intel’s Atom cores. Power consumption per core is supposedly around 300mw per 2000DMIPs on cutting edge manufacturing processes, although that figure varies according to implementation.
ARM cores, along with other ARM in-house and 3rd party IP, are used by ARM architecture licensees to develop custom processors.
Third parties can then either mass produce a CPU or build and manufacture whole computing platforms that comprise graphics, sound, power, memory and more. An example of this is the Ti OMAP 3 and 4-series platforms. Sometimes the architecture itself gets licensed out to third parties, which then make their own processors and platforms based on it, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon.
With regard to graphics and multimedia IP, there are several options, including using IP from the computing segment – through Nvidia for instance – or some of the ATI CE resources recently sold off to Qualcomm.
Historically, ARM has seen most of its success in cellular applications, and the low prices of its products reflect that, but a number of firms have recently expressed interest in using the ARM architecture in other application areas too – from CE devices to servers.
From the beginning of 2010 several ARM licensees, including Nvidia, have begun to offer multi-core products based on ARM’s Cortex-A9 architecture.
Making chips is an expensive business. Many ARM licensees are fabless companies, while others are independent design manufacturers (IDMs) —semiconductor companies with in-house manufacturing capacity.
Even without having their own manufacturing facilities, however, designing a smartphone chip from the ground up can still cost in the region of $1 billion.
ARM licensees include Freescale, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Samsung, Marvell Technology, Broadcom and STMicroelectronics, to name but a few.
Currently, the leading chip making fabrication plants (fabs) are TSMC, UMC, GlobalFoundries and Samsung Electronics – all experts in producing very small, very power efficient chips based on the ARM architecture.