During a summit at 4G World in Chicago yesterday, Qualcomm’s vice president of product management, Reiner Klement, detailed the company’s next generation Snapdragon system-on-a-chip, the S4.
The S4 is the first mobile processor to be manufactured using the brand-new 28nm process technology, which provides Qualcomm with inherent benefits in frequency scaling, power consumption, and size reduction. According to Qualcomm, “By migrating to a 28nm process, we are able to deliver a highly compact, efficient design able to scale across multiple form factors,” ranging from smartphones to tablets to laptops. So for example, if an S4 chip is going into a smartphone, it will be a less powerful version with a single bus for the sake of size, and vice versa for a chip going into a tablet. But regardless of how powerful the chips are, all of the S4s will be exceedingly efficient in terms of power consumption.
The S4 is powered by a next-gen Krait CPU that features asynchronous Symmetrical Multi-Processor system (aSMP), which allows for each core to have a dedicated voltage and clock, including the L2 cache. This provides flexibility in that each CPU core can run at its most efficient power point or voltage and frequency, depending on the task being performed. As a result, the S4 features a 25-40% power improvement over synchronous SMP architectures. While the S4 processors use the ARMv7 Instruction Set Architecture, aSMP cannot be found in regular ARM chips as Qualcomm develops its own custom CPU cores.
The CPUs in the S4 series will range from 1.5 GHz to 2.5 GHz per core, and can be single-, dual-, or quad-core depending on how the chip is scaled. The S4 SoC integrates numerous other elements including but not limited to GPS, DSP, Wi-Fi, next-gen Adreno GPU and, according to Klement, “the first integrated LTE world multimode modem, a fully integrated connectivity solution.” The multimode modem has a combination of 3G/4G connectivity over a variety of frequencies and bands, including LTE FDD, LTE TDD, eMBMS, DC-HSPA+, DO Rev. B, 1X Advanced, TD-SCDMA, and GSM/GPRS/EDGE. It also allows for a number of LTE Voice features, including CS Fallback (automatically dropping you back to 3G for calls, since 3G can handle simultaneous voice and data), SVLTE, VoLTE, and SR-VCC.
As for the Adreno 225 GPU found onboard the S4, Klement argued for its importance and potential beyond gaming applications. “Yes, gaming is a key use of a GPU, but there are other entities that need a GPU,” he said. “For example, maybe you would like to leave the world of a boring 2D UI. And there’s also web browsing; a lot of 2D entities are able to run on a 3D engine there.”
But perhaps the most useful application of the GPU that he pointed towards was in the context of navigation. “It gets a little more powerful and realistic when you get a 3D engine in there,” he said. “This would vastly improve the user experience with navigation apps on a smartphone.”
And rest assured that the GPU is a powerful asset to the S4. It has similar shader architecture to the Xbox 360, but those shader elements can adjust dynamically to maximize processing power and app performance. Supposedly 50% faster than its predecessor, the Adreno 220, the Adreno 225 supports Windows 8 and DirectX 9.3 (Shader Model 3), and features auto balancing unified shader architecture with shared ALUs.
The Snapdragon S4 offers some advanced software technology thanks to its hardware, some of which is new to the scene, but most of which has already arrived on the market in some form. For instance, he talked about 1080p stereoscopic 3D video playback and seamless transitions to wireless displays.
“You could be watching a movie on your phone, but then you get home, and hell, you’d rather be watching your video on your 55-inch TV,” he said. So you can wirelessly connect your phone to your TV and continue watching on the larger display.
The benefits that the S4 brings to smartphone cameras are relatively familiar as well, such as multishot, zero shutter lag, face detection and recognition, and stereo 3D video capture and playback. And, of course, he touched on gaming, which he said could easily be converted from 2D to the stereoscopic 3D format that the S4 supports, simply by projecting two images to each of the user’s eye (think parallax barriers, which we’ve seen before).
But what was really intriguing was when Klement described the potential for new audio-based features thanks to the next-generation Snapdragon. He said that the S4 could allow for ultrasound technology which, in practical terms, means that you could do things like navigate through your smartphone without having to touch the screen (a big plus for those of you who can’t stand screen smudging and fingerprints.). The ultrasound tech could be used in conjunction with EPOS pens for drawing or taking notes.
When asked about what operating systems Qualcomm intended to target with this new chipset, especially considering the relative dominance of NVIDIA in the Android tablet market, Klement didn’t respond with a specific OS. His explanation seemed to imply that the company was more concerned about being involved with both the smartphone and tablet platforms, rather than a specific operating system.
“Yes, Qualcomm had a late start getting into tablets,” he admitted. “But the tablet market has one problem: if a tablet is not running iOS, it’s part of the rest of the market, which is only 40%. So now we have all of these different OEMs vying for a part in that 40%.”
“So how do we compete with NVIDIA? Well, I’d like to unify the tablet and premium-tier smartphone.”