Samsung steps up challenge to Snapdragon with new processors

by Caroline Gabriel

At its Mobile Solutions Forum in Taipei this week, Samsung stepped up its challenge to Qualcomm in the mobile internet processor market, announcing two chips that have come out of its Hummingbird project, and which are likely to find their way into the Korean giant’s own phones from the first half of 2010.

Samsung Electronics unveiled a range of advanced components that will add up to a turbocharged smartphone, with enhanced capabilities for high definition video, gaming and imaging. These products will be available to other phonemakers of course – Apple iPhone is a notable customer for Samsung processors – but are likely to appear first in selected Samsung devices.

The firm suggested that it would embed the new apps processor first in a brace of gaming optimised handsets for release in the first quarter, in Korea and some European markets.

These will join the growing breed of high end, media-heavy phones that sport 1GHz processors – and the battle for that chip space is turning into a head-to-head between Samsung and the Qualcomm Snapdragon. The latter has appeared in the Toshiba TG01 superphone, heavily geared to video applications, and Samsung announced its own challenge back in July, with the Hummingbird development project, a collaboration with Intrinsity.

In December, it will start sampling two 1GHz app processors based on the ARM Cortex-A8 platform, one for smartphone makers and one for netbooks and ‘smartbooks’ (the category largely defined by Qualcomm and Freescale, of ultra-mobile ARM-based netbooks, which are likely to run Linux variants). The two apps processors, the S5PC110 and S5PV210, will be made on Samsung’s 45nm process to reduce power consumption. They could be targeted at successor handsets to the 800MHz media-intensive Jet.

Samsung also announced components for the capacitive touchscreen and camera module, that reduce size and power. Its touch-embedded display driver chip crams all the controls for a capacitive touchscreen into a far smaller package, and new camera modules combine 5-megapixel sensors with 1080p HD video recording capabilities on a single system-on-chip. There is also a single-chip mobile TV channel decoder SoC for China’s mobile TV standard, and a 1Gb OneDram chip using fusion memory technology.

While Samsung’s phone unit uses silicon from a wide range of suppliers, it is likely to take early advantage of these advanced components, as it looks to follow up on the popular 1GHz Jet superphone. This is a heavy hitter in the category of high end handsets that are geared to advanced media functionality rather than, necessarily, open operating systems and app downloads.

Qualcomm has announced a dual-core version of its Snapdragon chip and ARM is working on a multi-gigahertz, multicore processor that is probably a year away. Meanwhile, EETimes says Marvell will soon boost its Sheeva ARM-based processor to 2GHz and could create a multicore, multi-gigahertz chip, taking it into Intel x86 territory in performance terms. Intrinsity CEO Bob Russo told the paper that Marvell spent more than $100 million developing Sheeva and Qualcomm spent $300 million on Snapdragon but “we did Hummingbird in 12 months for a small fraction of that cost. We can turn these cores fairly quickly with a staff of 40-70 people on it for most of the time”.

Quoting research firm Techno Systems Research, Samsung said sales of cameraphones of five megapixels or more will reach 98 million units in 2009 and grow to 660 million units in 2013, at a CAGR of 61%. Samsung and LG have already shown off 12mp devices.

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