Three of the leading smartphones chip vendors, Qualcomm, Samsung and MediaTek, have come to the Mobile World Congress (MWC) to showcase advanced new modems and apps processors designed to power next-generation smartphones.

Nobody knows exactly what Apple has up its sleeve for the upcoming iPhone 8 in the iPhone’s 10th birthday. But gleaning from new technologies launched at the MWC, we have some idea of what to expect in Apple’s iPhone 8.

The use of the 10nm process technology–common to all three chips announced by Qualcomm, Samsung and MediaTek–and faster speeds in downlink and uplink enabled by the advanced LTE modem—led by Qualcomm—are two likely elements to be leveraged in iPhone 8.

Maturing smartphones

Features suggested for Apple’s iPhone 8 range from the adoption of OLED display to a front-facing camera with facial recognition and infrared transmitter/receiver. But realistically, even for Apple, new bells and whistles amount to incremental steps, not a great leap forward to the iPhone of tomorrow.

Finbarr Moynihan, general manager, corporate sales (International) at MediaTek, told EE Times that smartphones are “maturing to middle age.” It’s getting harder to find huge differences in features among end products, but smartphone SoC designers continue to wring out better power and processing performance.

Asked about key differentiators among maturing smartphones, Jim McGregor, principal analyst of Tirias Research, cited modem speed and multimedia performance (GPU, ISP, VPU, etc.).

Multimedia functions are critical to the latest applications including AR, VR and even GPU computing for applications like computational photography and AI (natural language processing and image recognition), he said.

In addition, modem performance has become crucial, especially through Apple’s dual-sourcing strategy, McGregor added. “Modem performance impacts not only the uplink and downlink data speeds, but also the connectivity reliability and clarity of the call.”

Following is a brief thumbnail of the three new smartphone chips being announced at the MWC.

Qualcomm is showing off the Snapdragon X20 LTE modem. The company’s clear plan is to leverage its lead in modem technology. The X20 chip is Qualcomm’s second generation Gigabit LTE modem. It supports Category 18 download speeds up to 1.2Gps. Built on Samsung’s 10nm FinFET technology, the X20 is the industry’s most advanced and first 10nm discrete modem.

Qualcomm SnapdragonX20 (cr) Figure 1: Qualcomm Snapdragon X20 LTE modem (Source: Qualcomm)

Samsung comes to Barcelona flashing the Exynos 9 Series 8895—its first processor chipset based on 10nm FinFET process technology. The octa-core processor sports a new gigabit LTE modem supporting five-carrier aggregation (5CA). It delivers data throughput at maximum 1Gbps (Category 16) downlink with 5CA and 150Mbps (Category13) uplink with 2CA.

MediaTek announced Monday (Feb. 27) the commercial availability of its Helio X30 SoC. Positioned as the most powerful addition to MediaTek’s Helio family, the new X30 offers 10-core, Tri-Cluster architecture on TSMC’s 10nm process technology. It consists of two ARM Cortex-A73 at 2.5GHz, four ARM Cortex-A53 at 2.2GHz and four ARM Cortex-A35 at 1.9GHz. MediaTek has integrated an LTE Category 10 modem, supporting a three-downlink Carrier Aggregation (3CA) and a two-uplink Carrier Aggregation (2CA) for high volume streaming.

Mike Demler, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, noted, “MediaTek’s joining the 10nm club is significant,” but “Helio processors are more about producing a balanced design than blowing out any particular feature.”

To put all these chips into context, Samsung’s Exynos 8895 competes directly with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (which Qualcomm unveiled in January). In contrast, MediaTek’s X30 “isn’t going after head-to-head competition for flagship phones (like iPhone or Galaxy S), noted Demler. Instead, “its competitor is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 series.”

Process technology

Common to all three new chips is 10nm process technology. Qualcomm and Samsung are using Samsung’s 10nm FinFET technology. MediaTek chose TSMC’s 10nm process.

Intel, Samsung and TSMC have been racing to be first with 10nm SoCs and capture profits from foundry customers such as Apple and Qualcomm.

As for Apple’s A11 SoC, however, the latest speculation indicates that TSMC is the likely 10nm foundry. Some analysts have pointed out the competitive advantage the Taiwan foundry has gained in packaging technology, called InFO (Integrated Fan Out) packaging. InFO is used to improve package thickness, speed and thermal performance.

Relentless speed race in modem

The new chips from Qualcomm, Samsung and MediaTek illustrate the relentless race for the speed of modem technologies.

Clearly on the horizon is the broader availability of Gigabit LTE for smartphones.

While Qualcomm leads with its Snapdragon X20 supporting Category 18 download speeds up to 1.2Gps, Samsung is running a close second by offering Category 16 downlink with 5CA with a maximum 1Gps data throughput.

Samsung Exynos9 (cr) Figure 2: Samsung integrates Gigabit LTE in its Exynos 9 Series 8895 (Source: Samsung)

MediaTek is still trailing, even with its newest Helio X30. It has made strides, however, with a Cat 10 modem, upgrading a Cat 6 modem used in the Helio X25 SoC. (In contrast, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 from last year was already supporting category X12 LTE.)

As for the new modem chip for Apple’s upcoming iPhone 8, both Intel and Qualcomm are neck-and-neck in competition for the design socket.

Intel’s new XMM 7560 modem supports LTE Advanced Pro for up to Cat 16 download speeds “exceeding” 1Gps, and Cat 13 upload speeds of up to 225Mbps. The XMM 7560, Intel’s fifth generation LTE modem is the first to be manufactured based on its 14nm process.

Both Qualcomm and Intel’s modems support 5CA, 4x4 MIMO configurations, up to 256-QAM and others.

However, it appears that Qualcomm has just raised the stakes with the announcement of Snapdragon X20.

 
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