Chipmakers beware: Qualcomm unleashes the quad-core Snapdragon

LG has revealed that its upcoming flagship handset, the Optimus G, will be the first LTE smartphone to sport Qualcomm’s(s qcom) long-awaited S4 quad-core processor. It sounds like a big deal, but why? Nvidia(s nvda) beat Qualcomm in the four-core sweepstakes six months ago, and Samsung, Texas Instruments(s txn) and Huawei all have their own quad chips.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon line does have some advantages over its competitors, though — some technical and some logistical. Let’s start with the technical:

Unlike most ARM-based processor makers, Qualcomm doesn’t license the ARM Cortex architecture directly. Instead a pays a licensing fee to build its own ARM-compatible processors. That gives Qualcomm a great deal of flexibility to tweak its designs, and it’s evident in newest processor architecture, called Krait.

Qualcomm’s newest chips don’t just have four cores; each will have independently variable clock speeds. When a phone requires little processing power, such as when it’s sleeping, only one core will be active. But as processing needs increase the remaining cores start kicking in, drawing more battery power. Snapdragon’s design allows the processor to gradually ramp up clock speed on each core, so different cores perform different tasks but only draw the power needed for each task.

Qualcomm has added plenty of other technology bells and whistles as well, from stereoscopic camera support to its own Adreno graphics processors.

But Snapdragon’s biggest advantage is the position Qualcomm has carved for itself in the handset silicon market. It’s not only the largest maker of applications processors; it also rules the radio chip universe. And it hasn’t been shy about using its dominance in the latter to reinforce its lead in the processor market.

Qualcomm is the only major chipmaker so far that’s managed to ship an integrated LTE radio and processor chipset, which puts it at a huge advantage when it comes to providing the silicon for the next generation of smartphones. Using an integrated chipset saves not only space and design efforts, but also power when slotted into a device. And power efficiency is the new Holy Grail in mobile, as LTE radios, larger screens and workhorse processors all make their demands on the battery.

A phone maker may really like Nvidia’s Tegra stand-alone processors, but Qualcomm’s integrated chipsets might appear sweeter because of those power and design considerations. Until Nvidia integrates its processors with its Icera radio chipsets in 2013, it will be at disadvantage to Qualcomm.

Ironically, Qualcomm hasn’t shipped an integrated quad-core chip yet. The APQ8064 chip in the LG Optimus G is a stand-alone processor. That fact might seem to even the playing field, but Qualcomm also takes advantage of its might in LTE to ensure its radio chips don’t necessarily play nice with other manufacturers’ silicon.

It’s no coincidence that highly hyped new smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X debuted in foreign markets as quad-core devices but appeared in the US as LTE handsets with dual-core Snapdragon processors. When it comes to LTE here in the US, handset vendors still have to answer to Qualcomm – at least for now.