Forward Concepts Wireless/DSP Newsletter 1-14-2013

A Short Observation on CES

The mainstream technical media has already extolled the virtues of last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but here's my brief observation: 

Last year's hot emphasis was on 3D TVs; this year's emphasis was on 4K TVs (also called Ultra HD TVs). Clearly, the market is not ready for 3D in a big way. The automotive displays were more spectacular than in the past, with Ford and Audi being two of the more spectacular ones.  But the major difference from previous years was the drastic increase in the number of booths from Chinese companies. I didn't actually count them, but there were well over 100 from China and Taiwan (still a fraction of the 3,250 exhibitors).  They often employed directly translated Chinese High Standard Electronics (Shenzhen) Ltd.) or altogether new English names like Skyworth Corp.  It's amazing the names one can put together with only 26 letters in the English language.

Another observation: 20 years ago many people in Silicon Valley were learning to speak Japanese.  Now, even more are busy learning Mandarin Chinese.  The reason is obvious. 

Qualcomm Continues to Lead

At CES, Qualcomm's CEO announced its Snapdragon 800 and 600 processors, which are said to represent up to 75% better performance over its prior Snapdragon 4 pro product.  Of course, the move to 28nm helped.  The devices are currently sampling and are expected to be in commercial devices by mid-2013. As they are the 3G/4G/LTE cellphone chip market leader, there's no need for me to go into detail that is readily available on the web. Perhaps the company needs a slogan similar to the English one: "Rule, Britannia!"

ST-E Claims World's Fastest, Coolest LTE Modem/Apps Processor

The first day of CES, ST-Ericsson announced the NovaThor™ L8580 Modem/Apps Processor based on a 28nm FD-SOI process.  The multimode Cat 4 LTE chip (150 Mbps DL) supports up to ten LTE/HSPA/TD-SCDMA/GSM bands.  The company'seQuad™ 2.5 GHz processor is based on ARM Cortex-A9 technology with a PowerVR™ SGX544 GPU running at 600 MHz. The STMicroelectronics innovative FD-SOI process is said to provide 50% less power to deliver the same performance compared with bulk CMOS.  The novel eQuad is based on two cores, each enabled at either 2.5GHz or at very low-power mode based on transistor-level electrical bias switching to allow each core to run in two different modes, said to create an electrically-enabled quad core. Samples are scheduled for availability this quarter.

Biggest Wireless Chip Rumors at CES:

During my several meetings with wireless chip vendors two industry questions were raised by most of them:

1) Who will buy ST-Ericsson?

It's well-known that ST-Ericsson is having significant financial difficulties, and its joint venture partners would like it to simply go away.  Neither Ericsson nor STMicroelectronics seem to want to buy the other out.  Other parties are wary because any acquisition will necessarily result in significant layoffs, which in Europe is a very costly proposition.  No potential buyer names were proffered by the several companies I spoke with.

2) Whose LTE modem does Intel employ?

Few people I spoke with believe that Intel's XMM7060 (Cat 3) slim modem employs LTE of its own design.  Intel has announced that the platform consists of its proven 2G/3G X-GOLD™ 626 with an "integrated low power LTE L1 subsystem." That LTE subsystem was announced at the 2011 Mobile World Congress (MWC)…eons ago in wireless time.  Intel has two obvious approaches to LTE1) Design a new multimode LTE modem from the ground up (very expensive) or 2) Clamp on an LTE-only modem on the current 2G/3G CEVA-DSP-based modem. It appears that they have chosen the latter approach.  #2 may be the quickest way to an LTE modem product while Intel ultimately works on #1.

Shortly before it was acquired by Intel, Infineon acquired Dresden-based Blue Wonder Communications which had developed an LTE modem based on Tensilica MPUs and accelerators.  That could be the approach that Intel is taking, but they could be using one of several LTE-only designs available from smaller companies. Maybe all will be revealed at the MWC next month, or we'll have to wait for the first handset teardown.

Renesas Mobile Multimode LTE Modem

At CES, I also met with Renesas Mobile and who discussed their powerful MP6530 multimode FDD/TDD Class 4 LTE/DC-HSPA+/EDGE/GPRS/GSM modem with a quad-core apps processor employing big.LITTLE ARM dual Cortex-A15 and dual Cortex-A7 MPCores.  The modem also provides a PowerVR SGX 2D/3D graphics engine and ultra-high-bandwidth dual LP-DDR3 memory support.  It includes a 20 MPixel ISP with real-time JPEG engine and zero shutter lag support.  Yes, it's a single-chip solution.  Oh yes, full wireless connectivity is onboard with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM and GPS/GNSS. 

Hardware reference designs and Android support (for Smartphones and web tablets) is also available. Said to have ultra low power consumption, the full-global-coverage MP6530 modem chipset is fully certified, but customer announcements will probably not be made before MWC next month.  Clearly, this is the chipset that could begin to provide real competition for Qualcomm's current Snapdragon S4 product line.

Conexant Demos Excellent Voice TV Command

One of the next things people will want with their next Smart TV is voice command while sitting several feet away.  During CES, Conexant was demonstrating its CX20865 Far Field Voice Input Processor SoC, the first dedicated Far-Field Voice solution with integrated Automatic Speech Recognition optimized for telepresence and voice control applications. The device is based on two 32-bit DSPs supporting up to 4 microphones. There's a clear trend to making the TV console the center for future communications and entertainment, and any way to reduce or eliminate hand-held controllers.  The company's own advanced processing algorithms are kicked off with Sensory's voice trigger which enables extremely low idle power drain until speech is detected. Conexant has become very aggressive in consumer audio and it still supports its legacy modem/fax products for POS and MFP devices.

Nvidia Continues to Impress

I won't dwell on Nvidia's dynamite game server and stunning Project Shield gaming device since my focus is on their cellphone products.  They lifted the curtain slightly on their multimode LTE i500 modem, demonstrating (in private) 100 Mbps download capability (Cat 3). In his Sunday presentation preceding CES, the company’s CEO, Jen-Sun Huang, indicated that the software-defined-radio (SDR) device consists of 8 modem processors, each running at 160 GOPS for a total of 1.2 TOPS. He claimed that there are no turbo accelerators; it's all done in software.  Nvidia also has the multi-band RF transceiver to pair with the i500. A formal announcement with more details is due at MWC next month in Barcelona,

Other CES Tidbits:

-Spreadtrum Communications revealed that its SC9610 TD-LTE/TD-SCDMA/EDGE/GPRS/GSM modem is shipping. We expect more announcements at MWC.

-GCT's GDM7240 Cat 3 FDD-LTE multiband modem was developed independent of its former partner LG.  The chip has been spotted in a Yulong CDMA/LTE handset.

-Marvell's PXA1801 2-chip Cat4 multimode LTE modem/App Processor features its own RF and PMIC is sampling and in certification.  It will be in new RIM Smartphones.

-Broadcom's booth depicted LTE everywhere, so formal announcements are expected at MWC.

-Nufront was touting its Telink 7619 GSM/WDCMA/HSPA baseband to mate with its dual Cortex-A9 apps processor.

-CSR was demonstrating advanced proximity-awareness location services being developed in conjunction with its SirfStar A-GPS server platform.

MWC vs. CES:

CES, is everything consumer, which includes lots of wireless.  MWC is everything wireless, but there are visible differences.  At CES, you encounter mostly sales and marketing executives. The attendees range from mom & pop store owners to test bench engineers to purchasing executives. Dress is mostly informal.  

At MWC, you encounter CEOs, CTOs and Vice Presidents…along with the booth-manning sales types.  The MWC attendees are almost all company executives.  Also, being European, dark suits with ties are the norm.  My calendar is beginning to fill up, but I hope to see many of you in Barcelona next month.

As always, I encourage your feedback.

Will Strauss

President & Principal Analyst

Forward Concepts