NEW YORK--As the Mobile World Congress raises its curtain next week in Barcelona, practically every mobile chip company is rushing to announce new smartphone ICs with the mobile industry’s two new “must-have" features--quad-core and LTE modem.
Of course, not all quad-cores are equal. LTE modems, too, come in different flavors. Every modem chip is at a different stage in operators’ certification processes, a hurdle that every chip vendor needs to clear before claiming a design win.
Aside from Qualcomm, which detailed its Snapdragon 600 and 800 during the International Consumer Electronics Show, and Broadcom, which discussed last week what the company claims to be smallest 4G-LTE Advanced modem chip, both Nvidia and Marvell are competing for the market’s attention this week.
Nvidia unveiled Tuesday (Feb. 19) Tegra 4i, a new member of the Tegra 4 family. It’s an application processor integrated with LTE processor on the same die.
Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, called it a “stunner,” due to a number of advanced features integrated in it. The 4i is based on four Cortex-A9 (2.3-GHz) CPUs jointly developed with ARM, featuring a fifth “battery saver” core. It also comes with 60 GPU cores and a version of the i500 LTE modem optimized for integration.
Nvidia's senior vice president, Phillip Carmack, wrote in his blog on Nvidia’s website, “Tegra 4i will bring super phone capabilities to the mainstream smartphone market, and there will be nothing on the market like it.”
Carmack probably isn’t just saying that. With Tegra 4i, Nvida is firmly setting its sights on Qualcomm. Nvidia’s spokesman claims that Tegra 4i “is significantly faster yet half the size of its nearest competitor, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800.” If true, that sets a new benchmark.
Meanwhile, Marvell rolled out Wednesday an LTE version of the company’s quad-core ARM Cortex-A7-based world-mode platform. Compared to Nvidia’s Tegra 4i (a quad-core CPU based on ARM’s most efficient core—the R4 Cortex-A9 CPU—plus a fifth battery saver core), Marvell’s apps processor appears decidedly modest. However, Marvell is emphasizing its own LTE modem, calling it “the industry’s most advanced modem solution” that features support for field-proven five-mode cellular modems, including LTE TDD and FDD, HSPA+, TD-HSPA+ and EDGE.
qaud-core AP is good to have. But backward compatibility with GSM/EDGE is critical, because, while high-speed data is a trend, voice feature with extensive coverage, which is only provided by GSM at least a few years ahead, is mandatory for populations over there.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.