New ultra small mobile Net device on the block
The assumed barriers that separated mobile phone and PC are crumbling
— Special arrangement
The challenge: An ultra-mobile computer from LG (centre) and competing processors.
“Oh East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet!” ran Rudyard Kipling’s ballad about the insurmountable social barriers of his day. Much the same thing could be said of processor chip makers who fuelled the twin worlds of the mobile phone and the personal computer. They had their distinct, separate markets, one demanding very small size and long battery life; the other demanding high processing speed and number–crunching capability.
A shootout is all set to take place that will decide who will be Last Man Standing on a cyber-Kurukshetra that is called the Ultra Small Mobile Internet Device.
Major computer processor makers like Intel and AMD, as well as cheeky upstarts like the Taiwan-based Via Technologies, now realize that customers want their PCs to be smaller, lighter, more portable, less power hungry. They also demand a richer computing-and-connecting experience; faster Web access; the ability to smoothly handle rich video and audio content.
The chip makers have responded in different ways. In what was seen as a canny move, AMD acquired the graphics processor company ATI. This will enable it eventually, to tightly integrate video and multimedia capability into its main processors and do away with the customer’s need to buy a separate graphics processing engine.
Intel, in recent months, has moved swiftly to shed its image as a provider of versatile but power hungry processors. With the launch this year of its Centrino ‘Atom’ chip, it has cut power requirements almost ten fold; the next iteration, codenamed ‘Moorestown,’ will reduce the power demand by another factor of ten — but the product is not promised till the second half of 2009.
The hard way
For processor players like Intel and AMD , such reductions have to be achieved the hard way by shifting to finer silicon geometries and reducing leakage losses by innovating in the product chemistry.
Via announced a new chip family in May: The Via Nano is the company’s first 64-bit chip family and promises four times as much data per watt as its predecessor, Via C7. It is available at various clock speeds from 1 GHZ to 1.8 GHz and the aim seems to be to address the same product category as the Atom: Ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs) and hand held Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs).
AMD has not yet announced its own offering in the power efficient small form factor Net device category, but technology sites and blogs last week were featuring a leaked powerpoint slide that seemed to show that the company was putting together its own low-power chip based on its AMD64 design template.
The rival camp has a fundamentally different approach: While the Intels and the AMDs are having to shrink their offerings to appeal to the MID/UMPC makers, traditional players in the business of chips for mobile phones, are having to scale up with more features, faster math and better graphics to address the same new market. The big names here are Texas Instruments (TI), Freescale, Qualcomm, Samsung and ST Microelectronics(STM) — and they share one characteristic: unlike the PC processor giants, they don’t design their chips bottom up; rather, they license the chip architecture and/or the instruction set from the UK-based ARM and build their distinctive chip offerings on top.
In order to get their silicon into the new generation of smart phones and hand held Internet access devices, these players offer various combos of multimedia, audio/video, as well as multiple radios like 3G cellular, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or WiMax.
An article in the New York Times widely reproduced in the Indian media earlier this week, seemed to suggest that Intel’s dominance will be challenged by a ‘low power upstart,’ Qualcomm. In fact, the particular Qualcomm offering cited, named Snapdragon, was announced seven months ago and has already fuelled some reference designs of MIDs from Asian makers like HTC and Inventec.
Its significance lies in its ability to break the gigahertz barrier in what is essentially a smart phone chipset and to facilitate high definition video on tiny-form-factor devices, even while enabling OEMs to add GPS, a 12 mega pixel camera, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and broadcast TV to Qualcomm’s own MediaFlo standard. It runs at 1 GHZ, and integrates a 3G modem, graphics core from ATI and GPS support in the core.
If that reads like the recipe of a chip for all seasons, consider the following announcement just one month ago from nVidia, a company known for its signature gaming and graphics cards for PCs. It has announced what it calls ‘the world’s first single chip computer (SOC) for high definition Internet experience’ hitherto available only with PCs.
The nVidia Tegra 650 processor claims 10 times the power efficiency of existing battery-operated computer products (the unstated comparison is probably with Atom), with HD image processing for still camera as well as camcorder, and support for what is called ’1080p’, that is full high definition video at 1920 by 1080 pixels (the ‘p’ stands for progressive scanning).
The world’s smallest full HD computer on a chip is built on an ARM11 MPCore multi-core processor (The Qualcomm Snapdragon, on the other hand, licenses only the ARM v7 instruction and has built its own processor).
Another regular ARM core licensee, TI, has also announced its candidate for the coming battle to gain the high ground in the MID maidan: Its latest OMAP 35x series includes the 3530, a single-chip solution for multimedia smart devices which works with the Windows Embedded CE.OR2 operating system. Other releases in the 35x series are optimized for gaming or super scalar office applications.
Is there a pattern?
Do we see a pattern in these claimants for the new ultra portable PC crown — all with mobile phones as their legacy platforms? They are able to build on their ability to work with very small amounts of power… this is part of their phone DNA. Now, they have swiftly added high end graphics and multimedia functionality and they seem to be daring the traditional PC chip makers to reinvent themselves as the ticking hearts of tomorrow’s handheld, lean-mean and visually exciting computing machines.
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