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As MediaTek’s general manager for corporate sales Finbarr Moynihan acknowledged, long gone are the salad days when chip vendors competed via easy comparisons over headline specs–such as the number of cores, megapixels in image sensors, etc. “We now enter the phase where vendors compete on real user experiences they can deliver.”

To this end, although MediaTek’s Helio X30 uses 10 cores—more than any other smartphone SoCs, this competition isn’t about throwing more cores at SoCs. As Jim McGregor, principal analyst of Tirias Research, concluded, “This is about optimising tasks to both improve performance and reduce power.”

Moynihan noted that its deca-core, tri-cluster SoC leverages what MediaTek calls “CorePilot 4.0,” a hardware-software architecture. The energy-aware architecture monitors user experience, Moynihan explained. It can predict an individual’s power usage on the device and prioritise which app is most critical at that point to control power consumption.

Mediatek deca-core (cr) Figure 1: MediaTek's Helio X30, deca-core, tri-cluster SoC (Source: MediaTek)

MediaTek has done the deca-core in previous Helio series. Demler said, with HelioX30, MediaTek is further “refining it for more power-performance flexibility.”

He also pointed out that the Helio X30 deca-core “should deliver real benefits in battery life.” In his opinion, “The little cores don’t take much area, and you still have two big cores when you need them. It’s a trade-off that makes sense for MediaTek’s market, when compared with Apple’s approach which is sacrificing battery life to deliver the most powerful CPU and GPU.”

Comparing the new generations of smartphone SoCs, a significant trend is that practically everyone, even Apple and Qualcomm, have “adopted a big.little approach,” said Dempler.

New SoCs from Samsung and MediaTek show that the big.little CPU configuration has become the mainstay of the chips’ architecture.

Exynos 8895features an octa-core CPU. It consists of four second-generation Samsung custom-designed main CPU cores and four Cortex-A53 cores in big.little configuration.

Multimedia, AR/VR, deep learning

AR and VR are the next big apps for smartphones.

For example, Samsung is touting a new 3D graphic performance that minimises latency for 4K UHD VR and gaming with ARM’s latest Mali-G71 GPU.

Samsung also noted that its advanced multi-format codec supports video recording and playback at a maximum resolution of 4K UHD at 120fps. For VR (Virtual Reality) apps, Samsung promises that the Exynos 8895 delivers “a realistic and immersive VR video experience at 4K resolution.”

Curiously, with Helio X30, MediaTek has shifted from ARM's Mali GPUs to Imagination's PowerVR graphics cores. Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research, speculated, “It’s likely Imagination desperately needed new momentum and made a new deal with MediaTek.”

Nonetheless, MediaTek boasts that Imagination PowerVR Series7XT Plus is clocked at 800MHz as a tailored GPU for MediaTek Helio X30. The company says the new GPU offers “power savings up to 60% while increasing performance by up to 2.4 times compared to its pervious platform.”

According to MediaTek, its Helio X30 supports major commercial Virtual Reality SDKs.

It remains to be seen how far the new generation of smartphone SoCs have gone to support deep learning.

In Samsung’s case, it has discussed a new Samsung Coherent Interconnect (SCI) to support cache coherency between the CPU complex and GPU for Heterogeneous System Architecture. This architecture allows “faster calculations for fields such as AI and deep learning,” the company said.

Meanwhile, MediaTek has integrated deep learning in its voice system, said Moynihan. Its always-on listening capability is equivalent to “putting Alexa into the phone,” he added.

But when asked about MediaTek’s plan to integrate an inference engine into the smartphone SoC, “We may have more to say about that later,” said Moynihan. “We think we need some elements of inference engine to get done in processing on the SoC.”

Overall performance

MediaTek’s Helio X-series offers “a mix of features that may be just a notch below what flagship phone processors like Snapdragon 835 provide, said Demler.

But the Helio X30 covers all the ground in multimedia features—including high-end dual camera (14-bit 16+16 Megapixels, with wide and zoom combination lenses for real-time depth of field effects, fast auto exposure and real-time de-noise in low-light condition features) and 4K video (by integrating a power-efficient, hardware based 4K2K 10-bit HDR10 video decoding into the SoC). Moynihan noted that Helio X30 also has a built-in Vision Processing Unit (VPU)” paired with MediaTek’s image signal processor technology. The combination provides “programmability and flexibility” for phone makers to customise camera features, he added.

Noting that MediaTek has traditionally excelled in the low to mid-range segments, McGregor explained that it’s important to note the Helio X30 is a high-end processor built on the latest process node.

In Moyihan’s mind, MediaTek’s new SoC “priced appropriately” could be the right chip to “hit the sweet spot.”

 
« Previously: 10nm node, Gigabit LTE come to smartphones

This article first appeared on EE Times U.S.