Broadcom clouds Qualcomm's SoC event
WAILEA, Hawaii — Qualcomm described and showed working silicon of its next-generation flagship SoC, the Snapdragon 845, at an event here. The chip is a significant, but stepwise enhancement of its 835 widely used in smartphones and angling for new kinds of sockets including PCs with cellular modems.
The SoC sports redesigned CPU and GPU blocks and a new layer of cache to boost performance 25-30 percent and support features such as Ultra HD Premium video encoding. The advance is impressive given the SoC is built in the Samsung 10nm node and fits in the same 12mm2 package as the 835.
The 845 debuts at a precarious time for the chip vendor that dominates a maturing smartphone market. Qualcomm is trying to close an acquisition of NXP to extend its reach into automotive and the Internet of Things. Meanwhile, rival Broadcom launched a hostile takeover bid that could radically alter its structure and culture.
Analysts generally praised the chip and were upbeat on Qualcomm’s market position, but expressed uncertainty about its future as a standalone company.
The 845 is “a significant upgrade — to get 25-30 percent performance in the same general process node is huge…they touched every part of the SoC,” said Jim McGregor, principal of Tirias Research.
Qualcomm dominates premium smartphones except for Apple, Huawei and Samsung handsets using in-house chips. Meanwhile its closest rival among merchant suppliers, Mediatek, has been late with its last two parts, he said.
Separately, Mediatek announced three of its SoCs will appear early next year in entry-level and mainstream handsets with up to a Gbyte of memory running Android Oreo (Go edition). Mediatek SoCs ran second to Snapdragon which was used in 46 percent of global Android smartphones that shipped in the first three quarters of 2017, according to International Data Corp.
Qualcomm showed several demos with working 845 chips. (Images EE Times)
McGregor expects Qualcomm will close its bid to buy NXP, but doubts the combined company can escape Broadcom, known for slashing costs and selling off parts of the companies it buys. “From a financial perspective it looks almost inevitable,” that shareholders will approve the bid by Broadcom which has seen its stock price soar ahead of Qualcomm over the last five years, McGregor said.
“The only thing that might change it is if Qualcomm completes the NXP deal then quickly goes after another company such as Marvell/Cavium,” he added.
“It would be a sorry, sorry day for the industry if Broadcom is successful — it will demoralize employees, there will be a brain drain and Broadcom will end up with an empty shell,” said Jon Peddie, principal of Jon Peddie Research.
Qualcomm is nearly alone in designing custom GPU, DSP and other cores for its mobile SoC. With the exception of Apple that Peddie believes will add a custom DSP to its portfolio soon, others generally use licensed cores, he said.
The 845 is “more than an upgrade, they have re-architected three major components — all three of which contribute to AI and connected PCs," Peddie said. The biggest advance is its support for an Ultra HD Premium video standard that will make 845 handsets “as good if not better than the best TVs,” Peddie said, adding he expects derivatives of the chip will power future TVs.
Next page: No custom CPU, but the visuals look good
No custom CPU, but the visuals look good
The Snapdragon 845, expected in handsets before June, will reduce power or increase performance in graphics and video by 30 percent. Its eight-core ARM-based CPU should boost performance on other apps 25 percent.
The increases come in part from a new 3-Mbyte cache shared dynamically across SoC blocks, in addition to a 2-Mbyte L3 on the CPU block. The move to a three-issue Kyro CPU is a larger factor, said Travis Lanier, product manager for the block, which uses four semi-custom Cortex-A75s running at up to 2.8 GHz and four A55s at 1.8 GHz.
Qualcomm chose to dedicate its custom circuit designers to its recently released Centriq server processor. They are presumably back at work on a next-generation Snapdragon for 2019, likely the first to use a 7nm process and incorporate a 5G modem.
Other SoCs may sport higher CPU benchmarks, Lanier said, but they are not likely to move the needle on features users notice. Qualcomm hopes its support for video capture in Ultra HD Premium at 60 frames/second does catch users’ eyes with its 10-bit color depth, 1,000-nit luminance and BT.2020 color gamut.
Some observers noted CES is likely to see a battle over competing video standards from Dolby and others. Several TV makers and content providers Amazon, Netflix and others are supporting the Ultra HD Premium standard, said Tim Leland, product manager for video and graphics.
In still images, the 845 aims to hit a new high in the DXOMark benchmark where Qualcomm’s 835 already beats Apple’s A Series chip.
The 845 also boosts slow-motion video capture to up to 480 frames/second for HDR 10 720-progressive resolution. In addition, it increases depth sensing to 2K x 2K resolution at 120 frames/second for better biometric security and AR/VR response.
Next page: Neural nets get a boost but stay on DSP
The 845 significantly expands the Snapdragon's color palette.
Neural nets get a boost but stay on DSP
Rather than create a dedicated block to handle the emerging inference jobs in deep neural networks, Qualcomm opted to enhance its existing programmable DSP. It added or enhanced in various blocks support for 8-bit integer and 16- and 32-bit floating point math, claiming a net 300 percent boost for AI jobs.
“There’s a lot of buzz about dedicated hardware for neural nets and down the road there may be a need for it, but dedicated hardware requires a choice and if it isn’t correct you have wasted silicon,” said Gary Brotman, product manager for machine learning.
Still evolving and immature AI software makes the DSP “the right solution,” he said, suggesting AI blocks described in the latest Apple and Google smartphones are re-branded DSP or GPU units.
The neural net group Brotman represents was formed just last year. It will be interesting to see next year whether Qualcomm puts into a follow-on chip an accelerator for the base linear algebra underlying neural nets.
Separately, Qualcomm designed a new block to take over functions previously run in a trusted execution environment. The secure processing unit contains a simple core and memory along with encryption block and random number generator on a power island.
The unit is the company’s own design, similar to secure cores ARM announced earlier this year. It will handle biometric security as well as key management, secure-element functions and digital payments.
Finally, the chip sports a 3GPP Category 18 modem, the X16, which Qualcomm claims delivers data rates up to 1.2 Gbts/second, aggregating signals from as many as five channels. To support the speeds, carriers will need at least 10 MHz of bandwidth at 1.6 GHz or higher running 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM modulation or use a mix of licensed and unlicensed bands.
The new modem also includes support for dual 60 GHz Wi-Fi antennas and enhanced support for 802.11ac. t also packs support for Bluetooth 5 including broadcast to multiple devices.
A Quick Charge 4 feature can fill half a smartphone battery in 15 minutes. Uptake of the prior version was slowed by the transition to Type-C USB, said Lanier.
Next page: Calling up a more connected PC
Calling up a more connected PC
Asus and HP announced Snapdragon 835-based Windows 10 notebooks at the event, and Lenovo will follow suit at CES. The systems, shipping early next year, aim to create a new class of thin-and-light portables with built-in cellular and longer battery life than their x86-based cousins.
The year-old initiative led by Microsoft and Qualcomm makes strategic sense for the two companies. Qualcomm needs to expand beyond smartphones and Microsoft needs to inject energy into Windows.
However, analysts are skeptical. Past ARM-based PC efforts failed and carriers have yet to give clear signals how they will handle data plans for the devices.
At the launch, an Asus product manager candidly admitted he expects the systems to make up less than 1 percent of its notebook sales in 2018. “If we get 1-2 percent of notebook sales with the first wave that would amount to a huge win,” said Peter Bernard, program manager for the effort at Microsoft.
“This is a multi-year journey,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm’s chip division, noting smartphone makers will also ship the systems. However, he noted sales of systems “in the next six months will determine how successful we will be.”
Qualcomm compared a 50.4cm2 Snapdragon PC motherboard (top) to a 98.1cm2 one (below). Click to enlarge. Source: Qualcomm
A 30-percent size reduction of a Snapdragon versus an x86 motherboard makes way for a larger battery. The embedded cellular modem opens a door to use beyond Wi-Fi hot spots for the so-called “always connected PCs.”
Data plans may include a mix of subscriptions bundled with the system, upgrade models similar to what XM Radio uses and virtual SIM cards that enable one account across multiple devices. “We’ve had a lot of meetings with carriers, and I wish I could give you a clear answer [what the data plans will be] but carriers are motivated because they see it as a growth opportunity,” said Amon.
A representative of Sprint said it will initially support Nano SIM cards on the devices and the GSMA standard for virtual SIMs in a second wave.
Next page: Emulating Win32 and a joke on Broadcom
Emulating Win32 and a joke on Broadcom
The clamshell Asus NovaGo will sell for $799 with 8GB RAM and 256 GB storage or $599 for 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage. HP’s Envy X2, a convertible design, prides itself on a 6.9mm thin case weighing 1.5 pounds, but did not release pricing.
The systems can “grow the PC market because people will spend more minutes on Windows devices than ever before, and they will take these products with them in more ways,” said Kevin Frost, general manager of HP’s client group.
The systems run Windows 10S, exclusively tied to the Microsoft online app store, and Office 365 hosted in its cloud service. They run Win32 apps including Office through emulation, automatically translating and caching often-used chunks of code to binaries that are erased in a hard reboot.
Some system libraries that are often used were recompiled for ARM. Bernard said early benchmarks show Snapdragon beats the x86 in multithreaded apps, but Intel leads in single-threaded tasks.
An HP employee shows the Envy X2 in its tablet mode.
Qualcomm expects to earn $3 billion in revenues for non-smartphone products this year, a slice growing at 25 percent a year, Amon said. Even a thin slice of the 270 million unit/year PC market adds to that figure. Longer term, upgrading microcontrollers in automotive and IoT designs to Snapdragon variants is the rationale for Qualcomm’s NXP bid.
Overall, the event was heavy with a subtext over a possible takeover by Broadcom. In a rare moment alluding to that concern, one Qualcomm executive joked the company discovered why Wi-Fi was unavailable the first day of the event.
“We discovered the access points were powered by Broadcom,” he said, triggering a roar of laughter from about 300 reporters and analysts here.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times