Back in the day, resellers customized computer systems by choosing the right motherboard, processor, and graphics add-in card for the job at hand. Now that the focus has switched from desktops to tablets and smartphones, customization means choosing the right SoC (System on Chip). Traditional processor makers Intel and AMD currently fight to put the most power possible on one chip while fending off strong products from NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and multiple chip variations based on the ARM Holdings processor design. And while they're all fighting each other, tablets and phones with processors from Chinese firms may take over the low-priced end of the market and move upstream.
The SoC news for 2014 is 64-bit chips, says Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at Insight 64, an analyst and consulting firm. "Everybody is racing to 64 bit. ARM showed their 64-bit architecture two years ago, released core details last year, and are shipping samples in the first quarter. Volume shipments are expected in the second half of 2014."
Intel's entry in the SoC market, the Atom, is almost to the 64-bit goal. "Intel demonstrated a 64-bit Android tablet at a financial analyst meeting in early December," says Brookwood.
While 64-bit ARM chips are getting closer, the delays killed Calxeda, a start-up based in Austin, Texas, that was building a two-dimensional SoC fabric that could stuff hundreds of ARM chips in a single chassis through the use of daughterboards. More chips with more cores (using four- and eight-core chips) requiring less power than Intel chips was the goal of the company. Currently, its technology remains in limbo.
NVIDIA's Tegra line, based on ARM architecture, usually appears in Android devices. However, both Audi of America and Tesla Motors have chosen Tegra chips to run their infotainment systems and digital displays. Each Tesla Model S has two Tegra 3D Visual Computing Module chips. Project Denver, NVIDIA's 64-bit chip, has been discussed for years, but has yet to ship in production quantities.
Other Players in the Market
Qualcomm, long hidden from public view as a component supplier, makes its Snapdragon chip based on ARM architecture with the company's Adreno GPU module added in. Qualcomm claims a new Snapdragon model will be available in the first half of 2014 sporting a "64-bit- capable" processor. "The assumption is that the chip will be ready to run 64-bit software when Android and the supporting hardware can support it," says Brookwood.
Remember the MIPS RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips that made headlines in the 1990s? They're back, after Imagination Technologies in the United Kingdom bought the intellectual property. The company is now pushing its Warrior P-class, high-performance MIPS processors, building on two earlier models aimed at entry-level and midrange applications.
Many affordable tablets coming from China use chips from companies we rarely hear about in the United States: MediaTek, Rockchip, and Allwinner. These companies don't develop their own graphics and processor cores, Brookwood says, but they give capable dual- and quad-processor support with the latest versions of PowerVR and Mali graphics modules. "If you see a tablet for $100, it will say 'Made in Shenzen China' on the inside," says Brookwood. "Resellers looking for tablets for vertical market applications should check these out."
Resellers who want to get into the SoC market should go with their strengths, says Brookwood. "If you're an Intel or AMD reseller, many of the x86 tools for those chips will work on Intel and AMD SoCs." Bay Trail Atom chips coming in 2014 use Intel graphics from the company's Haswell and Broadwell chips, but other chips using Imagination Technologies' graphics modules are available if needed, says Brookwood. He adds that Intel will be pushing these aggressively in 2014, including for embedded systems that control heat well enough to be fanless.
But, of course, there are no guarantees. "If you stay with Intel and AMD designs," says Brookwood, "some of these Asian chips may undercut you."