Newswatch: Mediatek v Qualcomm – let the duelling commence

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

Forget all the smoke and mirrors surrounding the launch of the new Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone and its wearable accessories. Forget all the bells and whistles promised by the various smartphone, tablet or wearable device manufacturers at MWC 2014 the Qualcomm and MediaTek struggle was the most intriguing aspect of the event.

The added touch of spice of the battle for supremacy is that the two businesses reflect in microcosm the wider battle between Asian and Western multinationals competing to supply all our mobile device needs in the future.  Don’t forget more Chinese companies than ever before attended MWC in Spain – 99 exhibitors from China this year, that is 29 more than in 2013.
The MediaTek v Qualcomm scenario is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s impressive first feature film as a director.  The Duellists was  a historical drama film based on a Joseph Conrad short story The Duel which recounted the story of a couple of French
Napoleonic cavalrymen who over a number of years challenge one another to a series of duels (thirty in total) using different weapons. After 20 years of incessant fighting neither of them can quite recall why they started duelling in the first place. The appeal of the film is the way one of the characters reluctantly yet steadfastly protects his honor under the threat of a fierce, determined and persistent rival.

Qualcomm is the dominant player for smartphones that ship into North America and Europe while right now MediaTek is best known for being the leading player in the Chinese market.  Now there are signs that MediaTek seems to have reached the maximum market share that they can achieve in China and will be looking to go after Qualcomm in other markets.

MediaTek’s strategy seems to be to focus more on western markets and on the fastest growing tier of the smartphone market, which the Taiwanese chipmaker hopes will help it chip away at the dominance of the company’s US rival Qualcomm.

Currently ranked second to Qualcomm in the mobile phone market MediaTek unveiled a series of next generation processors able to use 4G, or LTE, networks at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

At present smartphone revenues at the Taiwanese group are roughly a fifth of those of its US rival and although MediaTek has tended to supply chips mainly to Asian handset makers such as fast growing Lenovo, LG Electronics, ZTE, Coolpad and Xiaomi the company is clearly casting its net at western markets and even showed its intent by opening an office in San Diego, California, that will employ 150 people.  San Diego happens to host the Qualcomm’s HQ.

MediaTek sees its way forward in western markets is to make smartphones more affordable by introducing the company’s range of technologically advanced chips that tend to be cheaper than those offered by Qualcomm.

4G seems to be a major strategic objective for MediTek but the company also seems keen to use innovations to make smartphone technologies more accessible to wider audiences.

Estimates suggest that Qualcomm currently dominates the LTE modem market with a 90-plus percent market share that may encourage some OEMs to seek a healthy competitor to provide an alternative source.  There is little doubt MediaTek is aiming for a slice of that rather tasty American pie.  

At MWC 2014 Qualcomm Incorporated added the Qualcomm Snapdragon 610 and 615 chipsets to the Snapdragon 600 tier for high-end mobile computing devices. The
Snapdragon 615 chipset claims to be the mobile industry’s first commercially announced octa-core solution with integrated LTE and 64-bit capabilities, while
the Snapdragon 610 chipset supports LTE and 64-bit capabilities using quad-core processing.

Both new chipsets integrate Qualcomm Technologies’ 3rd Generation LTE modem, supporting Category 4 data rates for new requirements such as LTE-Broadcast and
LTE Dual SIM Dual Active (DSDA). The Snapdragon 610 and 615 chipsets are designed to work with Qualcomm Technologies’ RF360 Front End solution, enabling OEMs to ship a single 5-mode global LTE SKU across all major bands and modes worldwide – a requirement for this highly competitive handset tier. In addition to LTE support, both chipsets also integrate critical 3G technologies, including HSPA+ (up to 42Mbps), CDMA, and TD-SCDMA.

The Snapdragon 615, 610 and 410 chipsets also support ARMv8, the latest instruction set for ARM compatible devices.  The ARMv8 architecture claims to offer the most power-efficient implementation while maintaining compatibility with existing 32-bit software.

MediaTek also chose MWC 2014 to reveal a 64-bit octa-core LTE SOC.  The MT6752 deploys eight 2.0GHz ARM Cortex-53 CPUs and a Mali-T760 GPU – the next-level 64-bit mobile computing and LTE.  The solution aims to give consumers in the Super-mid market high performing smartphones at an affordable price.

The MT6752 platform supports low-power, 1080p, 30fps video playback supporting the emerging video codec standard H.265 and legacy H.264 and 1080p, 30fps H.264 video recording.

"We launched world’s first true octa-core solution in November 2013 and now we continue to extend our lead to deliver on our vision to make the world a more inclusive place,”  said Jeffrey Ju, General Manager of the MediaTek Smartphone Business Unit.

The MT6752 platform will be commercially available early Q3 of 2014, with a complete reference design and mass production in Q4.

Rapid charge powering of mobile devices
Although 4G and LTE look like being the high end technology battlegrounds for Qualcomm and Mediatek another lower level technology yet mass volume market they will both be vying for supremacy in the future focuses on the rapid charging of mobile devices using power adaptors.

As often happens at times of conflict neutrals often tend to benefit more than the key protagonists.  In this case one European company is well placed to gain from the battling US and Chinese groups.

Neatly positioned between the two giant protagonists is a UK company Dialog Semiconductor plc which has nimbly managed to identify a handy niche market for rapid charge interface chips that support the rival rapid charge communication protocols championed by both Qualcomm and Mediatek. 

“Only a couple of years ago most high end smartphones, for example, the Samsung Galaxy S3 were shipping with 5 W power adaptors.  Currently the Galaxy S4 ships with a 10 W adaptor and there is clearly a trend to higher and higher power,” explained Scott Brown, Head of Dialog Semiconductor’s Power Conversion Business. “That is partly because the batteries are getting bigger and partly because everyone wants to charge their batteries faster”.

“The chance is when using a USB power supply, which of course almost everyone is using, then you are limited to a 5 W supply and the microUSB connector in the phone itself is limited to a maximum of 2 A so right away getting beyond 10 W is going to be a challenge”.

Brown continued: “At the Mobile World Congress event in 2013 Qualcomm announced the company’s Quick Charge 2.0 rapid charge solution which had a communication protocol between the phone and the power adaptor whereby the phone could negotiate a higher voltage and enable you to scale that initial 5 V voltage up to 9 V, 12 V and in some cases up to 20 V.  That means that you can potentially provide up to four times the power to the adaptor than would be the case with a simple traditional power adaptor”.

In January 2014 Dialog announced a rapid charge interface chip (the iW620) that is compatible with the Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 rapid charge solution.  

“The iW620 just sits on the secondary side of the AC/DC power adaptor because it has to be connected directly to USB’s low voltage lines so there is no way that they can be attached to the primary side of the transformer,” explained Brown. “With the Qualcomm solution we have a part on the secondary side that interfaces with the phone and that communicates to a driver on the primary side that then scales the voltage and does what is requested of it by the phone”.

At last month’s Mobile World Congress 2014 in Barcelona, Spain, Dialog Semiconductor plc unveiled the world’s first AC/DC rapid charge controller compatible with MediaTek’s new Pump Express fast charge protocol.  The iW1680 is a single-chip solution that uses Dialog’s intelligent rapid charge digital algorithm and digital primary-side control technology to reduce charge times in USB AC/DC wall chargers with no bill of materials (BOM) cost premium over slower conventional charging technologies.

The iW1680 uses Dialog’s built-in, intelligent rapid charge digital algorithm that communicates with MediaTek Pump Express-compatible phones and dynamically scales the output voltage of the wall charger to deliver the optimized level required by the phone at any given time. This lowers the overall system cost by eliminating the need for an input buck converter in the phone and reduces charge times by enabling more efficient power transfer to the phone battery.

The iW1680’s rapid charge AC/DC controller embeds sophisticated digital analysis on the primary side of the isolated power supply within the charger and allows voltage scaling without the need for any intelligence on the secondary side which further reduces costs.

The iW1680 supports power adapters up to 7.5 W, with high active average efficiency and low no-load power consumption less than 30 mW. Communication between the phone and iW1680 is through a VBUS supply line. Voltage scaling is digitally managed on the primary side of the transformer in the AC/DC adapter by the iW1680, which analyses the signal of the VBUS and scales its output voltage accordingly. The iW1680 easily and efficiently drives low-cost bipolar junction transistor (BJT) switches to further drive down BOM costs and reduce electromagnetic interference (EMI).

"The iW1680 is similar in concept to the iW1620 Qualcomm-based solution in as much as it scales voltages but it will be compatible with Pump Express fast charge protocol developed by MediaTek," explained Brown. "Mediatek has come up with its own way of doing things which is essentially the same concept but the implementation is radically different.  It is different in how they communicate.  In this case they do not use the low voltage lines they actually communicate back to the adaptor by modulating the supply line.  Right away that is a significant difference because you no longer need to have that second shift from the low voltage secondary side of the adaptor as you no longer have to connect to the low voltage lines.  Information is fed back to the primary side via low modulation performed within the handset or media tablet". 

Brown continued: "The other difference with the MediaTek approach, well at least with the initial product Dialog is announcing now, is that MediaTek do not actually scale the voltage up.  They do not scale up from 5 V up to 9 V, 12 V or 20 V. In fact they actually scale the voltage down which at first thought may seem counter intuitive but the reason they scale the voltage down is because if you look inside a handset or a media tablet the power is typically  being converted down to something less than 5 V and could be as low as 3.6 V depending on the state of charge of the battery". 

"The first thing you have by the phone is some sort of DC-DC converter and in low end phones that converter is typically linear which makes the efficiency pretty poor.  If the battery is in a low state of charge then the output voltage from that linear converter may be 3.6 V and your efficiency is going to be in the low 70 percent range. This means that the 5 W you are providing to the adaptor is more likely to be less than 3.5 W of useful power that then can be used to charge the battery".

"The first round of devices that will support the MediaTek Pump Express fast charge protocol will scale the voltage down for these reasons. In this way most of the 5 W of available power is converted into real power at the battery charger itself".

According to Brown the iW1680 chip is fully available and evaluation boards are also available.

"We have volume samples and in fact we have production wafers in fab," admitted Brown. "We expect this solution to ramp pretty quickly and we are ready for that ramp. We are ready to support volume orders today and I think we will see production happen comfortably before the end of the year".  

"The rapid charge market is definitely happening.  We are seeing volume shipments that will kick in for our existing products based on the Qualcomm protocol in the very near future. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is substantial momentum for rapid charge in its various forms".

As for the long-running duel between Qualcomm and MediaTek this looks set to keep on running for a good while yet and while the post-MWC 2014 dust settles it will be interesting to see what technologies they will choose to fight over next and what weapons they will be deploying in the future.

Related articles and links:

News articles:

Rapid charge controller supports MediaTek fast charge protocol

Dialog collaborates with Qualcomm to achieve higher efficiency rapid smartphone charging

Compact 5-V Qi wireless charger offers design freedom

First dual-mode 5-W wireless power receiver enters volume production

Wireless charging shift ahead


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