SAN FRANCISCO -- China's Actions Semiconductor built its business on MP3 players, but today its CEO is realigning the company to tackle the white box tablet market in Asia and beyond.
"We're kind of late for this market, I admit... When you're late to the market, you're always less known, so you need to have a sharper weapon and sharper price," CEO Zhenyu Zhou told us. "You also have less baggage on your shoulders."
Known for its MP3 chips -- still a lucrative business for the fabless company -- Actions began to target China's tablet market in earnest in 2012. As a latecomer to the game, it hopes to address specialized tablet markets that MediaTek, Apple, and Samsung are too big to target. "We have to differentiate ourselves from the likes of MediaTek by trying to address a specialized market segment like the educational market... something MediaTek isn't able to address. Another specialty market will evolve out of that -- for example, restaurant tablets."
Actions has invested in a Chinese company that is testing an "electronic school bag," a tablet that connects to a school's cloud service, rather than the Internet. Zhou expects this idea to take off in China, though legal considerations surrounding education and security may slow acceptance in the United States.
To differentiate itself from the competition, Actions has released a set of multicore chips targeting various market tiers. Zhou cited novel power management and mixed signal blocks that it designed in-house, and he said the company's main focus is expanding into RF and Bluetooth.
"We're really trying to bridge the gap between the companies who have channel capability and companies that have sourcing capability," he said. "One company doesn't have to do everything. A good thing about the white-box tablet market is it's still growing, but a lot of people are going toward it."
The company will continue to focus on Bluetooth speakers, video boom boxes, and MP3 players, though it has introduced three chip sets to serve several market tiers. Zhou said Actions is unique in using dual-core processors in entry level chips. "We're trying to accelerate migration to dual core while selling at the same price as dual core. I believe there won't be any single-core designs next year. Dual core will be basic for mobile devices pretty soon, and quad core will standard for the mainstream, [but] I think octacore is a little speculative at this point."
The entry-level 7021, aimed at markets such as India and Africa, has a dual-core processor comparable to ARM's Cortex A9, running at 1.3 GHz with an Imagination PowerVR Series5 SGX GPU. The 7029b chip, a quad-core version, runs a Cortex A9 up to 1.2 GHHz with a slightly more powerful Imagination GPU.
For high-tier tablets, the 7039 quad-core chip also uses the Cortex A9, running at 1.5 GHz per core. Zhou hopes to upgrade in 2015 to ARM's 64-bit A5X series in quad-core or octacore versions with up to 2 GHz per core. Though Actions hopes to enter the Bluetooth market, none of its chips will have Bluetooth integrated.
"We are still debating that, because on the mid-to-high end, it is hard to decide which connectivity should be integrated. There are many different standards and bands for different markets," he said. "In low band and entry level, this is something in our target. Users want the connectivity functionality but don't really care which connectivity they use."