I decided to dig into what the low-end Android chipmakers like Mediatek and Rockchip are up to, since they’re the ones who are likely to drive prices down.
Mediatek has a quad-core A7 chip out now, and it’s being used in low-end smartphones, but since it integrates phone circuitry in it, it’s not likely to end up in tablets. It’s called the MT6589. The catch with this chip, though, is that a good dual-core A9 chip will outperform it. So if you see a quad-core phone at a dual-core price, get suspicious. Mediatek claims to be the first to make a quad-core A7–Allwinner and Qualcomm is right behind it–but the performance benefits of four A7 cores is questionable. Perhaps it will turn out that a quad-core A7 provides better battery life than a dual-core A9; time will tell. But it’s also entirely possible that quad A7s are just a marketing gimmick.
I don’t expect the MT6589 to end up in tablets, since it contains functionality a tablet will never use. But the Allwinner A31 could be a player in the low-end tablet space. The Qualcomm MSM8x26 is similarly geared toward phones.
Rockchip has a quad-core A9 chip called the RK3188 due for release in the next couple of months. It will sport four A9 cores running at 1.8 GHz, which one source says will perform in the Nvidia Tegra 3 and Samsung Exynos 4412’s territory. With the dual-core RK3066 knocking the price of dual-core devices into single-core territory, I wonder if the RK3188 will do the same.
I can’t tell what VIA’s near-term plans are. Old-timers will remember VIA as a one-time prominent maker of desktop PC chipsets, and many years ago they bought the remains of Cyrix and IDT’s Winchip division, two makers of x86 CPUs that never quite caught on the way AMD did. VIA continues to make x86 chips, having invented the nano-ITX form factor, but they aren’t nearly as prominent in the PC space as they were a decade ago. But VIA has a single-core A9 SoC, the WM8950, that’s been common in low-end Android tablets for some time and Asus chose that chip for its new low-end $149 tablet, which is a win for VIA. The question is whether VIA is planning to follow it up with inexpensive dual and quad-core chips.
Allwinner also has a its A20, a dual-core A7 CPU with Mali 400 graphics. Nothing to get excited about, except that it’s pin-compatible with the existing Allwinner A10 chip used in many of the dirt-cheap Android devices, which raises the possibility of dual-core A7 devices in the sub-$100 space since it would take minimal engineering effort to drop this new chip into existing A10 designs. Most, if not all of the no-name Android tablets sold on Black Friday for $70 or $80 last year were Allwinner A10-based. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the same tablets come back in a few months with a new A20 chip and perhaps a newer version of Android for perhaps $10-$15 more.
To me, the big limitation on those $70 tablets is the 800×480 screen, but the CPU might be the cheaper upgrade. Or maybe, just maybe, being able to do a dual-core CPU will push the 800×480, single-core devices down into the $50 range, and they’ll decide to pair the cheap dual-core chips with 1024×600 screens and sell those for $80. We can hope.
There’s a lot of talk about Intel wanting to get into phones and tablets, and being able to match or beat ARM in terms of performance per watt. But I have my doubts that Intel is willing to sell chips for what Allwinner, Mediatek, and Rockchip are.