Qualcomm’s 64-bit processors graduate to mid-range phones, but high-end must wait

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Qualcomm is definitely taking the scenic route in its journey toward 64-bit mobile computing. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, Qualcomm announced a new 64-bit architecture for mid-range Snapdragon chips and its first octa-core mobile processor. High-end smartphones and tablets, however, are stuck with quite powerful Qualcomm’s 32-bit Snapdragons, at least until Qualcomm moves 64-bit technology into its top-tier 800-series processors.

While you expect device makers and silicon vendors to target 64-bit chips at the their most sophisticated devices as Apple did with its new iPhone 5s, Qualcomm has gone the opposite route. It started making 64-bit processors for cheaper smartphones; not quite entry level, but one step removed. With unveiling of the Snapdragon 610 and 615 it’s moving the architecture into more sophisticated devices, but not the flagship smartphones and powerful tablets Snapdragon is most known for.

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I asked Qualcomm Technologies VP of Marketing Tim McDonough why the company pursued a bottoms-up approach. He said Qualcomm isn’t trying to build a concept processor that only works in a few expensive handsets. For 64-bit mobile computing to be truly useful, it has to be widespread, encouraging OS makers and developers to design their software for the new architecture. By starting low, Qualcomm can build up that 64-bit ecosystem, McDonough said.

That’s a good point, but I can’t help thinking there are some smartphone designers scratching their heads wondering why they can’t get Qualcomm’s new superchip into their flagship phones and slates. It’s a good bet those new 800-series chips are right around the corner.

It’s also important to note that today’s idea of mid-range is a lot more powerful than yesterday’s. The new 610 and 615 are both getting Qualcomm’s Adreno 400 series graphical processing unit, which in previous generations of Snapdragon were reserved only for its premium silicon. The 615 is also Qualcomm’s first octa-core processor, which McDonough said will make it a big hit in China where consumers tend to obsess about specs.

Qualcomm expects the 610 and the 615 to make it into commercial devices by the fourth quarter.

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