Analysts estimate that in 2009, billions of mobile devices – from smartphones and other “pocketable” communication products – roamed the earth. That number will only increase in 2010 and beyond. When you take a step back, it's hard to imagine a time when consumers weren't reliant on mobile devices to get through the day. Whether sending an e-mail to a co-worker, getting turn-by-turn directions to a restaurant, watching an urgent news clip or experiencing the Internet for the first time, a mobile device is arguably one of the most vital connecting points to the outside world. The chips inside these mobile companions serve as matchmakers, building personal experiences that address consumers' unique needs and wants.
With this enormous volume up for grabs, device manufacturers continually seek semiconductor solutions that enable the next “killer” device at an affordable price for target markets. Suppliers answer this call with chips that marry consumer expectations with device requirements on the processing, power and connectivity sides. Mobile device boards are stacked with these tiny wonders that act as the brains behind consumers' favorite devices, and each chip is designed with a unique purpose. Let's take a look at certain components that make the parts of the mobile machine work together, and trends that drive today and tomorrow's mobile chip designs.
Trend one: True differentiation found through a discrete processor approach
There is no “all-in-one” solution for the mobile market – each user craves a device that fits their personal needs. True mobile device differentiation rests in the software running on the applications processor, which often defines an end product. The applications processor and modem work hand-in-hand to deliver a compelling user experience, features and applications. The modem receives signals and/or data from the antenna and converts the data to a useable format, which is then sent to the applications processor. The applications processor drives the ultimate user experience, leveraging modem data as needed to deliver experiences like high-definition 1080p video decode, graphics rendering for user interfaces and PC-like Internet browsing.
A discrete applications processor solution, where the modem and applications processor are located on separate chips, provides the ability for mobile device manufacturers to quickly and efficiently scale software to deliver unique features that meet various market needs. In comparison, an integrated solution that marries the modem and applications processor within a single package often requires compromise and sacrifice in terms of innovation and time to market.
There are many reasons for keeping the modem and applications processor functions separate, including the rate of technology advancement and ramp-to-market times between generations of modems and applications processors. Current discrete applications processors show about a six- to 12-month time-to-market feature advantage over integrated modem/applications processor designs, due to easier processor design and easier mobile device PCB design. Indeed, even for modem technology, it's easier to bring the latest innovations to market faster as standalone “thin modems” rather than as part of an integrated solution. The rates of innovation are also drastically different, so the switch between versions is more efficient with separated solutions.
Beyond these timing differences, the discrete applications processor approach also yields advantages from development and design perspectives. For example, discrete processors foster the thriving open-source community, making it possible for device manufacturers to benefit from collaborative software development. They also allow for greater improvements in the voice path, allowing new features as well as higher voice quality.
Trend two: Advanced processing capabilities, new realities
Applications processors warrant faster, more innovative designs for today and scalable investments for tomorrow. They also symbolize a key call to action echoed across the entire mobile product spectrum: low power consumption must be paired with high performance in every instance – one must not be sacrificed for the other. Simply put, mobile devices are no good when they're dead, and weight/size considerations limit battery size. Similarly, product differentiation calls for roadmaps that include a generous amount of performance headroom. With discrete applications processors at the heart of designs, manufacturers have the flexibility to meet power and performance demands across the full variety of products.
The optimal balance of power and performance continues to revolutionize pocketable experiences, and next-generation applications processors will soon bring to life features like touchless gesturing, 3D high-definition video and imaging, and more. Within the coming year, a new class of mobile engagements driven by Human Device Interactions will also radically change how consumers connect to devices and the outside world. HDI is a set of technologies that improve the way humans interact with mobile devices in natural and intuitive ways. For example, a standard 2D camera will track and recognize body movements and gestures on the device, transforming touch commands into touchless interactions with the wave of a hand.
With intense processing capabilities, stereoscopic video and imaging enhancements will also change the way we capture and view content. Every-day 2D images will morph into interactive, 3D-HD memories. Sharing information will turn from a one-to-one into one-to-many experience with the ability to project mobile content on any flat surface, and traditional phones will morph into data epicenters through face, logo and object recognition. Future applications processors will transform these capabilities from mere design ideas to real-life experiences that alter the way users live life “on the go.”
Trend three: Combo connectivity technologies provide strong connections to the outside world
Similar to consumer demands for high performance at low power levels, there is an increasing uptake of connectivity capabilities in mobile devices. Bluetooth, GPS, FM radio and mobile wireless local area network technologies boost on-the-go products' utility by offering additional information and wider-ranging connections. Like applications processors, these connectivity technologies must provide robust capabilities at an affordable price while not shortening battery life, degrading cellular service or decreasing performance.
On the other side of the mobile globe, however, a discrete approach to connectivity technologies does not compare to the discrete approach with applications processors. In fact, combination connectivity solutions that integrate one or more mobile radio technologies on a single chip continue to prove their value in answering consumer and manufacturer requirements. Multi-radio combo solutions save space, minimize power consumption and reduce the phone's bill of materials, thus saving system costs and simplifying the manufacturing process. Today's combo solutions drive outstanding connections, and next-generation chips will provide even greater functionality by merging up to four technologies on a single die. With various connecting points, multitasking, sharing and overall communication reaches completely new heights.
Power-reducing features are also used in the design of combo solutions, including complete processors that provide communications flow management, and are thus capable of handling the entire communications load for their respective connectivity technologies. The devices operate independently of the host processor except when communication with the larger system is necessary. As a result, the host and other functions in a handset can remain in low-power modes while a combo is handling communications tasks, saving power and extending battery life between charges.
Though hugely valuable, the path to combo solutions is not necessarily a smooth one for semiconductor engineers. Bluetooth, GPS, WLAN, and FM solutions all require different transmission and reception techniques. Adding one or more of these capabilities to a device requires parallel communications gathered from multiplying RF functions. Signal interference between different RF technologies, especially Bluetooth and WLAN technologies that both utilize the 2.4 GHz frequency bands, can also cause user difficulties, including reduced call reliability and even dropped connections. Due to these and other factors, providers face many challenges in creating devices that allow RF connectivity for multiple communication tasks to operate successfully on a single silicon die. Sharing the same antenna among different technologies compounds these conflicts and increases the need for enhanced design.
New mobile chapters take flight
A few years back, the word “mobile” insinuated a handset or smartphone. Today, “mobile” touches a variety of products, which all utilize applications processors and connectivity technologies in one way or another. The importance of flexible designs is loudly echoed in emerging segments, and the need for versatility is best served by an approach that reuses the same technologies across new markets. Take the emerging e-book space, for example. Through platform-level integration, manufacturers reused mobile technologies and software to architect this new form factor.
The present generation of e-books that use relatively small processors based on the ARM7 or ARM9 cores are being replaced with ARM Cortex-A8-based processors. The first of these Cortex-A8 based e-books will hit the market later this year. Next-generation e-books will need ARM's Cortex-A8 processors as consumers expect more features, a better reading experience (such as faster page turns), larger screens (12-inch and bigger), and higher performance (driven by such items as faster PDF document opening and viewing). Likewise, the “not-so-distant” future shows the introduction of ARM Dual Cortex-A9 SMP-based processors in the e-book space, with support for larger color e-paper/color TFT LCD displays to enable highly interactive and feature-rich e-book content, including embedded 3D animations and 720p/1080p HD videos. Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 processors are mobile industry veterans, which bodes well for manufacturers looking for an easier path into e-book design. Derivatives of previous mobile processors and connectivity technologies provide considerably lower e-book manufacturing costs, while fully optimized solutions from experienced mobile vendors serve as critical tools to success.
With strong performance from discrete applications processors, robust connectivity options, power-management techniques and more, the next chapter of e-books – along with the next chapter of other mobile devices yet to be imagined – promises to be exciting, built from a sturdy mobile foundation and starring happy consumers.
A bright future
Designing mobile devices – from smartphones to feature phones and e-books – requires a rich understanding of user expectations and experiences. Consumers are increasingly demanding when it comes to the types of applications they expect mobile devices to support, and the ability to quickly and easily update products to meet these higher expectations is critical to achievement.
Mobile device boards are stacked with tiny chips that act as the brains of sleek devices, and each chip inside is designed with a unique purpose. Key components, including discrete applications processors and combo connectivity solutions, make various parts of the mobile machine work together in unison. Successfully implementing tomorrow's designs will require leading-edge silicon and wireless technology – the best of the best will continue to build even more personal experiences and connections to the outside world … and the mobile future will remain bright for generations to come!