Friday, September 12, 2014

Qualcomm announces entry-level Snapdragon 210 and 208 smartphone SoCs

Qualcomm has announced the Snapdragon 210 and Snapdragon 208 SoCs for entry-level smartphones. The new products fill gaps in Qualcomm's product line in the low end, replacing the relatively unsuccessful and outdated Snapdragon 200, allowing Qualcomm to target cost-sensitive markets without having to resort to using its more costly Snapdragon 400 and 410 platforms. The platforms use 32-bit (ARMv7) ARM Cortex-A7 CPUs cores, not the new 64-bit Cortex-A53 cores used in platforms such as Snapdragon 410. The use of Cortex-A7 cores mostly likely reduces cost compared to Cortex-A53, while remaining suitable for applications that do not put high demands on CPU performance. Both platforms are expected to be shipping in the first part of 2015.

Snapdragon 210: A more cost-effective Snapdragon 400

The Snapdragon 210 uses a quad-core Cortex-A7 CPU up to 1.1 GHz, with proven cost-effectiveness and power efficiency, with a new Adreno 304 GPU (with likely significant cost savings compared to the Adreno 305 GPU in the Snapdragon 400) and integrated 4G LTE Advanced modem, supporting carrier aggregation, with support for dual SIM. The chip targets entry-level smartphones with a display resolution up to 720p, and supports hardware decoding and encoding of 1080p H.264 video and 1080p HEVC (H.265) decoding. Performance is increased relative to Snapdragon 200 by supporting mainstream 533 MHz LPDDR3 memory. The chip is manufactured using a 28nm LP (low power) process. Overall, the specifications for a large part overlap with older quad-core Cortex-A7-based Snapdragon 400 SoCs, but with adjustments for the lower requirements of entry-level devices and significantly reduced chip manufacturing cost.

Snapdragon 208 targets entry-level 3G smartphones

The Snapdragon 208 is a cost-reduced version of the Snapdragon 210, with a dual-core Cortex-A7 CPU and a baseband that limits cellular network support to 3G. It limits video decoding and encoding resolutions to 720p, although H.265 decoding is supported, and has lower maximum resolutions for screen (960x540) and camera, and limits the maximum speed of the memory interface to 400 MHz. This chip competes with MediaTek's MT6572 platform, which has been shipping for some time and has similar features, and the MT6571.

For both platforms, Qualcomm advertises compatibility with its cost-reducing RF chips such as the RF360 and third generation 28nm RF transceiver.

Cost reduction for entry-level makes sense

Based on information such as new models announced at IFA by manufacturers targeting cost-sensitive markets such as Alcatel and Lenovo, Qualcomm is already aggressively targeting the entry-level market (primarily the part of the market that is transitioning to integrated 4G) with SoCs from its Snapdragon 400 and 410 platforms. It is likely that Qualcomm is currently subsidizing the relatively high cost of these chips (in relation to their use in entry-level devices), especially for 3G-only devices, selling them with a relatively small profit margin, which it can easily afford to through the leverage of the very high royalty rates that it strives to enforce on the wholesale price of all 3G/4G smartphones. Because Qualcomm is currently the only provider of viable SoCs with integrated 4G, it can also ask a certain premium for 4G. However, through royalties, Qualcomm is technically able to continue to achieve a high profit margin when selling the Snapdragon 400 or 410 into an entry-level platform, even when making little money on the SoC chip itself based on the nominal selling price adjusted for the entry-level segment. With the Snapdragon 210/208, Qualcomm can improve its profit margins in this segment without having to rely on patent royalties.

Competition: MediaTek

MediaTek has dominated the SoC market for entry-level 3G smartphones with efficient and cost-effective platforms such as MT6572 and MT6582. However, integrated cellular network support in these platforms is limited to 3G, and Qualcomm is currently taking advantage of MediaTek's delayed introduction of cost-effective SoCs with integrated 4G by targeting version of its Snapdragon 400 and 410 platforms at entry-level manufacturers. Despite the relatively high chip manufacturing cost in relation to the entry-level segment, Qualcomm can afford to subsidize these chips in conjunction with its royalty schemes and financial leverage. In the extremely tight capacity environment in TSMC's 28/20nm fabs, Qualcomm is also likely to have gained a larger proportion of its desired chip capacity than MediaTek, because of its ability to invest billions of dollars into purchase commitments.

MediaTek has announced SoCs with integrated 4G modems, including the MT6732 and several chips targeting higher segments, which are likely appear on the market very soon. However, the MT6732 uses slightly more performance-oriented Cortex-A53 cores and is not targeted at the lower regions of the entry-level segment like Snapdragon 210 is. Whether MediaTek will be able to effectively target entry-level 4G segments partly depends on the cost and efficiency its new integrated 4G baseband architecture. Its current stand-alone MT6290 4G modem chip, when combined with existing SoCs like MT6582, clearly does not fit the cost profile for entry-level devices.

Sources: Qualcomm, Ars Technica

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