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Summary:

Our mobile devices are getting smarter, faster and mimicking the functionality of a full-fledged PC. As the top wireless chipmaker, Qualcomm has long been the “Intel inside” for mobile phones. But can it compete against a host of new processors with better graphics and more performance?

Our mobile devices are getting smarter, faster and are increasingly mimicking the functionality of a full-fledged PC. New capabilities such as multicore processors in phones and the ability to send HDMI video out mean that the brains inside our phones need more performance while they sip power. To that end, several chipmakers are coming to market with chipsets that combine multiple processors, high-end graphics cores and other design features to make truly killer end devices. As the top wireless chipmaker, Qualcomm has long been the “Intel inside” for mobile phones, but can it compete against a host of new processors with better graphics and more performance?

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor is the brains behind the Nexus One phone and will also star as the processor inside some small yet powerful computers called smartbooks, but rivals such as Texas Instruments, Nvidia and Marvell are gunning for those same design wins. And from a feature perspective, it looks like Qualcomm’s competitors may bring more to the party. Its current 1 GHz Snapdragon (a 1.5 GHz version with 1080p will be in later handsets) delivers 720p video, and has a 3-D graphics engine that’s less impressive than those from Marvell or Nvidia.

Yes, Qualcomm has won big so far. Nvidia launched an application processor at the 2008 Mobile World Congress, which was one sexy hunk of silicon. Later, it became the foundation of the Tegra chipset for mobile devices. After seeing what that could do, I predicted it would revolutionize computing and graphics consumption on the phone. So far, it’s in the Zune, but hasn’t taken off like I expected.

Last year Texas Instruments talked up its OMAP 4 chipset, which seemed to exceed Tegra in terms of graphics performance (1080p, supports up to a 20-megapixel camera, etc), and actually had me giddy with excitement. This year at MWC it launched with TI talking up the chip’s ability to enable gesture recognition on handsets. Also today Marvell, which has really made a big push into application processors for mobile devices in the last year or so, launched its own 1 GHz chip capable of delivering 1080p HD video and hosting real-time, graphic-intensive applications.

Not to be outdone, ST Ericsson, another top wireless chipmaker, announced at the MWC show a dual-core smartphone chip that can deliver 1.2 Ghz on each core. That’s about what my laptop offered five years ago, and seems like far more performance than any phone needs, until you take into consideration that the phone form factor is just one of many mobile connected form factors and that ST Ericsson has also created a chip for mobile devices that allows for HDMI out of the phone.

We predicted such a port in our phone of the not-too-distant-future, but ST Ericsson has the silicon to make it happen. That means with an HDMI cable your phone becomes a DVD player for any content downloaded from the web. One hopes that online stores can get their act together when it comes to selling HD versions of video on mobile devices.

But the question still remains, in a world offering silicon that enables HDMI content to be stored and processed on a handset, or gesture recognition thanks to a high-end camera and a powerful processors, can Qualcomm compete? For the last two years I’ve waited for Qualcomm to be dethroned, but I’m still waiting. Maybe 2010 is the year.

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  1. As smartphones become computers?
    No — the smartphone is the computer!
    @brianshall

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  2. All those chips are based on ARMH chip design and technologies. Their SIMD and efficiency makes them appealing as is the possibility of easily licensing the intellectual property.

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  3. I’m waiting for a Tegra 2 Android smartphone. I don’t think there will be anything launche this year as good in terms of graphics and performance.

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  4. Why do you wish for Qualcomm to fail?

    I am sure qualcomm will be coming with their own versions of dual core chips and 20Megapixel cameras.

    Nvidia had the chip in 2008 – it’s 2010 now, why aren’t there any of their products in the market?

    I am sure there is something that qualcomm provides as an advantage to manufacturers that others cant – and probably that’s why manufacturers go with qcom.

    comments?

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  5. Tegra is inside every Zune HD, Qualcomm is one industry player, the has vast IP including 3G stuff, I agree they should be dethroned for a while :p @mitodna

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  6. yes… I forgot that Tegra is in Zune HD…. remind me again how many Zune HD’s have been sold? 1 or 2 dozens?? :)

    Do you have a Zune HD?

    Qualcomm is a great technology company and has IP becuase they have invested heavily in R&D to invent that IP. I think they deserve to reap the benefits of their investment.

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  7. [...] Can Qualcomm Compete As Smartphones Become Computers? [...]

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