SAN JOSE, Calif. With no big new features on the immediate horizon for cellphones, mobile application processors and media accelerators are on the decline. That's one conclusion of a new report on trends in cellphone design
The use of a secondary processor in high-end smart phones could fall to just 20 percent of new designs by 2010, according to Portelligent (Austin), part of United Business Media, the company that publishes EE Times. Just three years ago, as many as 80 percent of all cameraphones and smartphones used a secondary processor paired with a cellular baseband, the report said.
"Right now there's not a feature hanging out there that will drive a new wave of applications processors," said Jeff Brown, a principal analyst at Portelligent and author of the report.
Companies such as Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia stand to be the biggest losers of the current trend. Between 2003 and 2007 cameraphones leaped from an average VGA to 2 Mpixel resolutions, driving use of those companies' mobile graphics and imaging processors in handsets such as the Motorola Razr.
However, Portelligent now expects the average cameraphone resolution to increase to just 2.5 Mpixels over the next four years, a processing load the latest baseband chips can handle, said Brown. Vendors will roll out phones with 5-10 Mpixel cameras, but they are not likely to get much traction because it's hard for users to perceive the value of the extra resolution, he added.
"The cellphone business AMD acquired with graphics company ATI has not materialized as they had hoped," Brown said. Meanwhile Nvidia has rolled out mobile application processors filling a gap for its mobile graphics chips for which "design wins are diminishing," he said.
As for mobile TV, one of the much talked-about new features for handsets "it's been limited so far. I'm not convinced it's going to happen, and I'm not convinced it will drive use of a new wave of processors," Brown said.
Two factors on the horizon could spark a resurgence of secondary mobile chips—Internet access and 4G air interfaces.
Apple used an application processor on its iPhone to run the operating system and graphics that create a compelling Web experience. The success of the iPhone is driving copycat designs from companies such as Samsung, LG and Taiwan's HTC, though HTC's design uses Windows and a Qualcomm single-chip architecture.
By 2010, carriers will begin deploying new air interfaces such as Long Term Evolution. It's unclear if the processing power required by LTE will force a return to separate application processors to handle other handset functions.
The rise and fall of the media and apps processors indicates the quickly shifting fortunes in the mobile chip business. "You need the baseband side of the equation to follow through to the integrated part of the cycle or you may be gone," Brown said.
The report includes insights on silicon trends in a wide range of phones. It projects by early next year W-CDMA phones using cameras with less than a 3 Mpixel resolution should require no more than a single processor less than 50mm2 in size.
Baseband processors in voice-only GSM phones now measure just 20mm2, half their average size just three years ago. The latest generation of the chips from Infineon and Texas Instruments are integrating analog and power management features, but keeping their size to just 30mm2, Brown said.