Earlier this week, Chinese baseband chipset vendor Spreadtrum announced a new family of single-core 32-bit SoCs for smartphones. Yes, you read that correctly, single-core 32-bit SoCs for smartphones. In the age of the golden iPhone and phabets, we often forget that not everyone is going to pay several hundred dollars for a phone.
The first products to be released are the SC7715 and SC6815. The SC7715 is a highly integrated baseband SoC that features an ARM Cortex-A7 CPU, ARM Mali-400 GPU, dedicated audio codec, integrated power management unit (PMU), support for WCDMA/HSPA+ and EDGE/GPRS/GSM, and a complement of wireless interfaces, including 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and FM. The new device also supports up to a 5MP camera, 720p video, and display resolution up to WVGA. The SC6815 is an EDGE only device.
The new devices are using the smallest of ARM's big.LITTLE cores, and older generation GPU, and do not support the latest image sensor resolutions, displays, or wireless standards. In a world of mobile SoCs that rival the performance of PC processors, why should this even matter?
It matters because it fits a critical segment of the market. The device is targeted at $35 to $55 smartphones with Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) or higher and a 3.5" displays for emerging markets. And by emerging markets, I don't just mean China, I mean all regions where most of the population does not have a smartphone and 4G services are not available.
In terms of size, this segment is likely to account for half of all smartphones shipped in 2014. In fact, despite having a product line than includes more advanced dual-core, quad-core, and 4G SoCs, the majority of Spreadtrum's shipments in 2013 were single-core SoCs using the Cortex-A5 CPU.
Although it is not the most powerful SoC on the market, the SC7715 running at 1.2GHz provides Geekbench performance comparable to an iPhone 4S, according to Spreadtrum. This indicates that there is a significant difference in the performance from one generation of technology to the next, in this case Cortex-A5 to Cortex-A7, and the performance is not all about the number of cores. In addition, a single-core SoC can support a price range that the higher-core devices cannot match.
To be fair, most of the major SoC vendors do provide a range of products for different price and performance targets. However, you typically only hear about the high-performance parts because these are the devices going after the next super phone. All too often we forget that as the market expands, the highest growth will come from the lower-end of the market.
While 64-bit and 8-core solutions are cool, they are likely to become the upper niche of the market, much like the discrete CPUs and GPUs used in gaming PCs. There is still a great deal of growth left in 3G communications platforms and opportunities for cost-effective 32-bit SoCs.