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Summary:

Samsung’s first dual core handset, the Galaxy S II, is due to arrive soon, but there may be variants: Some will use Samsung’s CPU, while others will use Nvidia’s Tegra 2. Is this situation another example of potential fragmentation in the fast-growing smartphone market?

galaxy-s-ii-featured

Samsung’s Galaxy S 4G has only just arrived and been reviewed, but smartphone power users are already salivating over the Samsung Galaxy S II, a dual-core update that was shown off at last month’s Mobile World Congress event. With the faster processor and improved graphics, the Android handset can record and play back 1080p high-definition video and is expected to be a performance powerhouse for applications and web browsing. One would think that like other Galaxy S handsets, the phone would use a Samsung processor, but that’s not always going to be the case.

Samsung’s first dual-core processor was expected to power the Galaxy II S, and in some regions of the world, it will. But the company either can’t ramp-up chip production fast enough, or simply expects demand for the phone to be greater than the processor supply: Nvidia has confirmed to ITProPortal that Tegra 2 will be used on some production runs for the Galaxy II S. That’s another feather in the cap for Nvidia, whose chip is also inside the Motorola Atrix phone, Xoom tablet and several other upcoming handsets.

While most consumers don’t know or care about the brand of silicon inside their mobile device, one aspect to this chip situation could become a factor. In order to demonstrate the graphical capabilities of its Tegra 2, Nvidia has worked with developers to optimize applications for the chip. Earlier this week, the company launched its Tegra Zone application in the Android Market to help consumers find these optimized games. I’ve seen the fruits of that labor and admit that the Tegra-optimized apps look more fluid than their non-optimized counterparts. And in some cases, the extra game levels are part of the Tegra Zone software: another win for the consumer holding the phone with a Tegra 2 chip inside.

So what then, happens to someone who buys the Samsung Galaxy S II and gets one with the Samsung processor? I suspect these handsets won’t be able to take full advantage of the Tegra-optimized apps. The only way that they could would be if Samsung’s dual-core processor essentially offered the exact same graphics capabilities as the Tegra 2. But the graphics are part of Nvidia’s “secret sauce” in Tegra 2: a custom version of the Cortex-A9 architecture licensed from ARM Holdings. Graphics are Nvidia’s core competency and strength, a differentiating factor when it comes to smartphone silicon.

Indeed, I circled back to an Nvidia contact this morning by email and found that the Tegra optimized apps will run on non-Tegra devices, but the “best performance/graphics come from Tegra 2 devices” running the software. That makes sense, but some of the code optimizations may cause issues when running the apps on other silicon: Some comments on the Android Market point out laggy performance and crashes on non-Tegra devices.

We’ve talked before about fragmentation within the Android ecosystem as different handsets have long run different versions of Android. That means developers have often had to tweak their software to get it working on older Android versions. But this is the first time I can remember where the same model handset may not be able to run the same software depending on the brand of chip inside. And a similar situation may be brewing with Qualcomm: Netflix for Android will run on future Qualcomm-powered phones due to a hardware DRM solution. The scenario isn’t officially a Qualcomm exclusive, but what if it were?

I like what these chip companies are doing to advance our device capabilities, but as a consumer, I don’t want to have to worry about the whose chip is powering my phone. Do you?

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  1. Lucian Armasu Thursday, March 3, 2011

    The smartphone market is still very young and as any new market, things are pretty chaotic and not so standardized in the beginning. Manufacturers are still experimenting with different types of chips, and the chip leaders are far from being established yet. Once things settle down in a couple more years, we’ll probably see 2 or 3 chip makers dominating the mobile market and then things should be a lot more stabilized. You don’t see much difference between games playing on an Nvidia or ATI cards today. The Android market is very much like the PC market, and as it matures, these issues will be reduced or dissapear.

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  2. …not to mention there being a good likelihood that:

    1) different hardware versions may receive Android updates at different times; and
    2) different hardware versions may be subject to different bugs and issues.

    Observe that Samsung phones have been subject to numerous hardware/software interfacing issues, from GPS problems, to updates gone awry, to just the tremendous lag time in putting forth a 2.2 version for their Galaxy S phones. This issue isn’t isolated to Android either, as witnessed by the Win Mobile 7 debacle earlier.

    Also observe that it is only Tegra 2-based tablets that are launching in the near-term. As admitted by ASUS — there is a delay because Honeycomb was built around Tegra 2 and no Qualcomm port has yet been developed. http://www.engadget.com/2011/02/28/asus-eee-pad-memo-and-memic-hands-on-video/

    It’s fair to believe then that they may be additional delays in bringing Android versions for the Exnos processor.

    “On the Honeycomb side, ASUS tells us the delay is simple — as it stands, a commercial-grade Honeycomb port doesn’t exist for Qualcomm hardware, which is what the Eee Pad MeMO is running (the Xoom — the only released Honeycomb tablet so far — is running Tegra 2).”

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    1. And what happens when Tegra 3 comes out later this year? Another potential porting or optimization scenario? Not sure I like how this could play out. :(

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  3. Graphic quality has become a factor on smart phones as they have moved extensively into the gaming industry. Game apps are the biggest seller in the mobile industry and phone manufacturers are probably well aware of that. Video steaming/playback are becoming the norm and high quality output is now a touted feature. Chip manufacturers are going to do anything they can to get a leg up on their competition and Nvidia has taken an interesting approach by creating an optimized service for their chips. The average customer may not be too concerned whose chips are in their phones but the tech-savvy folks will definitely take notice.

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    1. Agreed on the business approach by the chip-makers, but even regular consumers will noticed if they can’t run certain apps on their Android handset while others can. That’s my bigger concern: what happens if this trend continues or worsens?

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      1. Lucian Armasu Thursday, March 3, 2011

        There will be middleware to take care of this issue, as well. 3rd party game engines will support the major chips, and game developers won’t have to worry about it. Unity has also just announced that now developers can easily port their Unity iOS games to Android in a couple of days. I think we’ll see more of this.

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  4. Samsung voluntarily deciding to do things that will make it even harder for them to provide OS upgrades on handsets they release? Why am I not surprised. It’s Samsung.

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