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2/18/2011
08:17 PM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Dispatch From Barcelona: Mobile Chips Of Change

New chipsets are enabling mobile computing in every aspect of our lives. Here are a few of the latest developments from this week's Mobile World Congress.

Texas Instruments last week announced its OMAP 5 architecture, and both Nvidia and Qualcomm followed quickly, announcing next-generation mobile processors this week at Mobile World Congress. Even as today's smartphones and tablets capture video in high definition and render graphics almost beyond the quality the eye can process, within a year these chipsets will allow phones to do even more.

It hardly seems possible that just recently laptops were getting dual-core and quad-core processors. A year ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted during his keynote at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that the processing power of mobile phones was superior to the computing systems Sun was making earlier in his career. Not long ago, chip designers were talking about dual-core 1-Gz processing; it seemed far-fetched, but already these phones are starting to ship.

Nvidia introduced and demonstrated the next generation of its Tegra chip, code named Kal El. It's a quad-core CPU with 12-core graphics processing. The company says its OEM customers (tablets are the target here) will have product by August. The demo showed high-resolution video streamed onto a tablet-sized display, without the system breaking a sweat.

Qualcomm unveiled the latest in its Snapdragon processor line, code-named Krait, which will come in single-, dual- and quad-core versions, with each core running at a mind-numbing 2.5 GHz. This architecture packs in the Adreno GPU series, which includes four 3D cores for 3D video capture and playback. There's much more to Krait, including the ability to control each core, the integration of multiple radio technologies, and improvement in power efficiency.

Texas Instruments gained a week in the spotlight by announcing its OMAP 5 chipset before Mobile World Congress, but since it doesn't include a quad-core version, it spent a decent amount of time in Barcelona explaining why quad-core announcements are just surface-level hype. Indeed, this must have been just what TI was anticipating, because in its own announcement, OMAP product line manager Brian Carlson had repeatedly emphasized that next-generation chip architectures aren't a horse race, by which he meant that there are other phone capabilities to be optimized.

Carlson noted that Nvidia's four A9 cores are served by a mere 1 MB of L2 cache, which is, he said, where you want all of the processing to be. TI's two cores are served by 2 MB of L2 cache. Carlson claimed that in real-world scenarios (not raw processor benchmarks), TI's design will perform better. He also said TI's design has two memory interfaces, whereas NVidia's has one, introducing another potential bottleneck.

But this is a battleground the device makers will fight on. For us, the more interesting part is what these new designs are capable of. TI spent a lot of time talking about computational photography, for things like improved facial recognition, leading to advances like real-time face search -- you know, when you want to see if that really is Angelina Jolie in Central Park (OK, maybe for surveillance purposes, too).

Dedicated processing for 3D also holds plenty of promise. TI is already showcasing that capability in LG's new Optimus smartphone, which captures and plays back 3D video. The ability to detect images in low light, filter noise during video capture, recognize gestures in the air, and project images are all things that OMAP is already enabling--and will accelerate in OMAP 5. Carlson said we'll see projection built into devices like smartphones within the next several months. OMAP5 end products will likely be around for the 2012 holiday season.

In Barcelona, there was plenty of chip action beyond the main mobile processor. NXP demonstrated NFC chips, which can store data and allow communication between, say, a piece of merchandise and a smartphone. These chips have been around for awhile, but late last year Google put one into its new Nexus S phone, and other device makers are following suit. NXP is putting NFC chips everywhere, including in business cards and watches in order to store and transfer things like contact data.

As NXP's chips land in mobile phones, there are some pretty exciting experiences. For example, the company has teamed up with Continental Automative (based in France) to demonstrate a car with keyless entry via phone. Various models support everything from seat and mirror adjustments based on personalized settings communicated via NFC to an audio/Web console control. You can view a quick video demonstration of the NXP watch experience directly below; our slide show provides some views of the car.

Of course, one thing a smartphone should do but which is often overlooked is make a damn phone call! The joke here is that phones can do everything from open your car to pay your bills and help you cheat on exams, but when it comes to making calls, best of luck.

One problem has been audio quality, and while that’s improving, a company called Audience demonstrated for me its amazing noise suppression technology. The company claims to have reverse engineered human hearing and replicated it in a chip -- its ES310 processor. It comes with the Samsung Captivate and was in the original Google Nexus. More phones are on the way. In the demonstration, Audience did a little before/after, with the ambient noise of the conference and an employee talking next to the person on the phone. During playback you could hear only the person talking on the phone; everything else was non-existent.

The other big problem is dropped calls, especially in high-density metro areas. Carriers are deploying Picocell technology -- base stations that can handle up to 100 calls within a certain radius. Picochip, which has been making the chips for 3G base stations, demonstrated 4G prototypes at Mobile World Congress. In fact, shortly before we began shooting the video below, a big Asian carrier insistent on seeing the technology first hand for possible deployment bumped our schedule back.

We acceded. We wouldn't want to get in the way of progress.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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