Quick Thoughts: High Speed Leapfrog

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–          QCOM CEO Paul Jacobs announced the Snapdragon 600 and 800 mobile processors during his keynote at CES 2013, leapfrogging rival Nvidia less than 24 hours after its Tegra4 announcement.

–          These system-on-a-chip (SoC) solutions will power devices available within a few months, raising the bar vs. Apple’s A6 and Samsung’s Exynos 5 processors that began shipping in products in 4Q12.

–          Samsung is expected to announce a quad core version of its Exynos 5 in February which would further raise the performance bar – logic and rumor suggest that Apple could respond in kind

–          The SoC roadmaps point toward an epic spring, with the hotly anticipated Samsung Galaxy IV head-to-head with an updated iPhone, and a host of new phones and tablets on the undercard.

My presence at this year’s CES in Las Vegas is regrettably virtual this year, a lost opportunity to catch up face to face with clients, industry contacts and friends, but a clear boon to my feet, my liver and my wallet.  Luckily, CES coverage is numbingly comprehensive and many of the best sessions are being streamed live, so I will try to keep up remotely and add my two cents as I see fit.

Usually, this year’s zeitgeist is all about the chips.  As per usual, Apple, Google and Amazon aren’t in Vegas, but neither is former CES stalwart Microsoft.  No Microsoft meant no Steve Ballmer opening night keynote in the traditional Bill Gates slot, so Paul Jacobs, CEO of wireless chip maker and IPR royalty collector extraordinaire Qualcomm, bravely took the mike.  Paul’s first surprise guest was … wait for it … Steve Ballmer.  The gist of the awkward banter was that Qualcomm’s snapdragon mobile processors and Windows 8 were a perfect match, as evidenced by several devices that were not the Microsoft Surface RT.  A few demos later, Jacobs got to the matter at hand and announced the new Snapdragon 600 and 800 portable device system-on-a-chip (SoC) solutions – clearly a significant advance over 2012’s wildly successful S4 SoC, given the 2 additional digits in the naming scheme.

The new Snapdragons continue to be the only solutions on the market that integrate a LTE baseband modem onto the same die as the mobile processor, a legacy of Qualcomm’s long heritage as the leading wireless baseband maker.  This integration gives the Qualcomm solution an immediate footprint and power draw advantage over rivals and put the company in strong position to defend its dominant position in non-Apple, non-Samsung smartphones.  Moreover, the quad core designs running a proprietary implementation of the ARM processor architecture at clock speeds of up to 2.3 GHz will likely give devices utilizing the new Snapdragons leading edge processing power as well.  Given Qualcomm’s exemplary history of hitting its marks, Jacobs’ promises of devices based on the new solutions before mid-year can be taken seriously.

Qualcomm’s impressive specs took a bit of wind out of Nvidia sails less than 24 hours after that company had announced its Tegra 4, a quad core SoC based on ARM’s CortexA15 reference design.  The Tegra 4 casts a much larger shadow than the Snapdragons, particularly if the off-board LTE modem is included in the configuration.  However, Nvidia’s heritage as a graphics processor leader is evident in the 72 core, 86 Gigaflop performance of the GPU, graphics rendering specs that leapfrog even the 77 Gigaflop rating on the A6X processor in the recently introduced 4th Generation iPad.  This performance will make the Tegra 4 a more popular choice for high end tablets, where real estate and battery life can be sacrificed for superfast graphical rendering.

Along with the Tegra 4, Nvidia also surprised the CES crowd with the announcement of the Shield, a portable Android gaming device built around the new SoC.  The Shield, which plays off of the fast twitch strengths of the Tegra4, broke the gamer blogosphere into fanboy and hater camps in record time.  The history of gaming centered mobiles – from Nokia’s Edsel-inspired N-Gage side talker to the more recent Sony Experia Play – has not been rife with success, so Nvidia will have to deliver the goods on the first try to quiet the roar of skeptics waiting to pronounce the Shield dead on arrival.

Samsung is expected to up the ante again in February with the announcement of a quad core version of the Exynos 5 Dual processor delivered with the Samsung-made Nexus10 tablet this past October.  The Nexus 10 with the Dual gave the A6X powered 4th Gen iPad a real run for its money for processor speed in most independent benchmark tests.  With four cores rather than two and a likely boost to the 1.7GHz clock, the Exymos 5 Quad should drive 40-70% performance improvement for the generation of Samsung devices arriving in 2Q13.

This raises the stakes for Apple, which must decide if it can wait until fall to update its own A6 processor architecture.  The A6 was the first Arm Cortex A15 processor to hit the market, with the iPhone 5 beating the Nexus 10 and the Samsung Chromebook to store shelves by more than a month.  However, the A6 and its GPU heavy companion the A6X specs will be unimpressive stacked up to the likes of the Snapdragon 800, the Tegra 4 or the Exynos 5 Quad.  The obvious step for Apple would be to step up to the bar with higher clock speed quad core versions of the A6 and A6X for refreshed models of the iPhone and iPad in the spring.  Given the 6 month update to the iPad in October, a further acceleration of the formerly once a year Apple update cycle would not be unprecedented.  Indeed, rumors have already circulated of Apple moving A6 processor production from its frenemy Samsung to the more neutral TSM, a move that would make more sense accompanied by a design update.  At the same time, mysterious photographs of casing parts purported to belong to a new iPhone model have begun to surface in Asia.  As per official Apple policy, none of these developments are likely to be confirmed by an announcement until the week before the products are scheduled to ship, but the logic behind the rumors makes a lot of sense.

This sets up a fascinating spring for mobile industry watchers, as devices built on the Snapdragons, the Tegra 4, Exymos 5 and the yet-to-be-revealed Apple processor will all battle for market leadership.  Processor specs are only part of the story for total device performance, but based solely on the announcements, Qualcomm appears to be maintaining, if not extending, its SoC advantages, particularly for smartphones, with Nvidia and Samsung a step or two behind.  At the device level, an iPhone 5S vs. Samsung Galaxy IV summer long battle could be the tech world equivalent of Ali-Frasier III.

For our full research notes, please visit our published research site.

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