Market Insight

Modem mash-up from Mobile World Congress

March 04, 2016

Wayne Lam Wayne Lam Principal Analyst, Mobile Devices & Networks

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Mobile world congress (MWC), the largest wireless focused trade show in the world takes place in Barcelona annually. This year’s show took place last week, and as usual there were announcements of new products from mobile chipset vendors. Light was also shed on which SoCs will be in some of this year’s flagship smartphones announced by major OEMs as well as lessor known brands.  Some of the modems announced were targeting mid-range smartphones, while others were more focused on the premium tier. Below is a brief synopsis of important announcements from key modem suppliers at MWC 2016.

Spreadtrum

The company has expanded its reach into the high mid-range handset market with the announcement of the SC9860, a 64-bit, eight core LTE SoC platform that employs ARM Cortex A53’s clocked at 2GHz or more as well as a Mali T880 M4 GPU. The SoC supports 2K/4K video capture and playback while display resolution support tops out at 2560 x 1600. Three image signal processors (ISPs) support cameras up to 26MP with dual camera support and real time front-rear camera operation. The SoC also employs an embedded sensor hub which could lead to increased contextual awareness of the devices it supports.

An important factor in the adoption of mobile SoCs is the integrated modem. Spreadtrum’s SC9860 features a LTE user equipment (UE) category (Cat 7) modem which is capable of 300Mbps in the downlink and 150Mbps in the uplink with FDD/TDD LTE support and carrier aggregation.

MediaTek

At newest member of the “super mid” range focused Helio product lineup was announced at MWC, the Helio P20 joins the current roster of the P10, X10, and X20. The P20 promotes power efficiency, with a 25% improvement compared to the P10. Like the Spreadtrum SoC above, the P20 incorporates eight ARM cortex A53 cores clocked up to 2.3 GHz. The Mali T880 MP2 GPU is present with support for two full HD displays running at 60 frames per second (FPS). Dual 13MP camera designs or up to a 24MP single camera are supported. Video playback and record are supported by H.265 and H.264 codecs.

The Zopo Speed 8 was the first phone officially announced to use the Helio X20 and was unveiled at MWC. The Chinese OEM is the first to adopt the deca-core design to support their smartphone.

Intel

Although the company didn’t mention any material information about the SoFIA LTE modems presumably in development it did announce a new thin-modem product, the XMM7480 which boasts Cat 12 LTE connectivity with support for 4 carrier aggregation with joint FDD/TDD capabilities. Like the Snapdragon X16 the 7480 uses 256 QAM modulation for the downlink, however Qualcomm’s modem is capable of downlink speeds of up to 1 Gbps while the XMM7480 tops out at 450 Mbps due to the limitations of the RF transceiver.   Also, the XMM7480 is based on an older 28nm process which hints at higher PCB real estate requirements than market leader Qualcomm solutions.

The good news for Intel is that the previous generation XMM7360 thin-modem announced last year is expected to make it into “high volume” products during the second half of this year. A large volume thin-modem win will be crucial for Intel as it begins to focus on being competitive in 5G technology which is still several years away from widespread commercialization.

Intel had a prototype smartphone running a SoFIA chipset on display at MWC that provided a “big screen” or desktop like experience on Linux when attached to an external display. Although focused on budget handsets in developing markets, this approach is similar to what HP has done with the Elite X3 which can run a Windows 10 desktop like experience when situated in a docking station. It remains to be seen if either of these approaches will be a success, but their development provides some differentiation in the smartphone market.

Qualcomm

After a challenging 2015 in the premium smartphone SoC market, Qualcomm is making a lot of progress with its Snapdragon 820. MWC was a coming out party for the SoC with leading OEMs such as Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, and Sony announcing products with it inside. Other products were announced or on display containing the 820 and included a Windows 10 smartphone from HP which can be inserted into a docking station for a desktop like experience.  Previously announced LeEco (formerly LeTV) has been selling engineering units of the LeMax Pro powered by Snapdragon 820 after the CES debut a month earlier. The improved reception of the 820 comes in stark comparison to the muted 810 introduction last year. On the last company earnings call management had mentioned over 100 designs in various stages of development with the 820, comparing to only 60 at that time a year ago with the 810.

Outside of Intel’s announced thin-modem the announced modem products at MWC this year are aiming squarely at mid-range smartphones. MediaTek and Spreadtrum announced somewhat similar products and it will be interesting to see which one fares better in a commoditizing smartphone market. On paper, Intel’s thin-modem performance may be behind in some key areas when compared with Qualcomm’s announced Snapdragon X16, but management’s confidence in its predecessor’s upcoming success this year could boost its chances of having any commercial success with a limited available market. 

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