Who says Asian companies can’t innovate? Just look at how Taiwan’s MediaTek Inc. has conceived a 64-bit system-on-chip (SoC) that features 10 Cortex-A cores in a tri-cluster configuration. MediaTek’s Helio X20 processor is also the first mobile SoC that boasts ARM’s latest CPU and GPU cores. Moreover, it sports an ultra-low-power Cortex-M4 core that can be used for always-on sensor functions like gesture recognition.
MediaTek’s deca-core design is arranged in a tri-cluster big.LITTLE setup
MediaTek’s deca-core SoC is based on a unique architecture that goes beyond ARM’s conventional two-cluster big:LITTLE setup and creates extra tiers in the SoC design to further optimize mobile computing tasks. The first CPU cluster in the Helio X20 SoC is dual-core and uses two Cortex-A72 CPUs with a maximum frequency of 2.0GHz to handle the most intensive tasks like gaming.
The other two clusters are quad-core, each using four Cortex-A53 cores, one optimized for high performance at 2GHz frequency while the other optimized for low-power consumption at 1.4GHz frequency. These quad-core clusters will handle light-weight computing tasks such as video playback that remain active for longer periods and require minimal power consumption. MediaTek claims that its new chip will enable 15 percent to 40 percent gain in power consumption compared to the rival chips based on two-cluster big:LITTLE architecture.
MediaTek is also the first chipmaker to officially announce an SoC based on ARM’s Mali T800 series GPU core. The Helio X20 chip sports an ARM Mali-T800 MP4 GPU clocked at 700MHz, and it features 2560×1600 displays, 4K video hardware decode, slow-motion video capture and support for dual-ISP 25-megapixel camera configurations. MediaTek’s new mobile SoC includes a dedicated hardware accelerator for 4K H.265 video decode and encode.
It’s a notable development because the largest silicon vendor from Taiwan hasn’t aimed very high in terms of GPU integration in the past. Moreover, the Helio X20 chipset includes CAT-6 LTE modem that supports 28 LTE bands and 2×20 carrier aggregation.
MediaTek is using auto analogy to promote tri-cluster SoC
MediaTek vs. Qualcomm
The innovative CPU arrangement can transform the Hsinchu, Taiwan–based chipmaker into a serious contender for sockets in premium smartphones and tablets. And it can also set MediaTek squarely against mobile SoC kingpin Qualcomm for another round of mobile processor wars. There is an interesting history between MediaTek and Qualcomm when it comes to adding cores to mobile SoCs.
In summer 2013, MediaTek launched the MT6595 mobile SoC and claimed that it’s the first true octa-core device in the market. At that time, Samsung had already launched the octa-core Exynos chip, but it only activated half of its cores at once, while MediaTek chips could run all eight cores simultaneously. Qualcomm first made fun of MediaTek’s extra cores and called it ‘dumb.’ Then, the San Diego, California–based semiconductor giant followed suit and released its own octa-core mobile SoC, the Snapdragon 615.
Helio X20 supports up to 32MP or dual 13MP cameras
Taiwan’s SoC powerhouse has raised the mobile chipset bar again, and it’s yet to be seen how Qualcomm and other leading mobile SoC makers respond to this aggressive move. However, for MediaTek, it cuts both ways. The powerful new chip can give MediaTek a strong foothold in the mid- to high-end smartphone and tablet markets. On the other hand, the chipmaker from Hsinchu has set itself for a giant challenge of getting three clusters work seamlessly and keep power management subsystems in control.
The Helio X20 chip, built on 20nm manufacturing process, is expected to be released in December 2015. It’s likely to be shipped in the first quarter of 2016.
Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.