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Mobile apps processor battle rages on

Posted: 15 Jan 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DSP  GPU  CPU  mobile SoCs  processors 

The new differentiators cropping up for mobile devices are the always-on mobile SoC that can be promptly awakened by voice activation, sensor fusion, multi-channel surround-sound audio, eye-tracking, post video processing, and more. An additional wrinkle is that many mobile SoCs are also being pitched as the brain that drives an automaker's in-vehicle infotainment system.

Such changes are prompting apps processor designers to rethink DSP, GPU, and CPU cores, giving birth to a new generation of "light" apps processors, designed as co-processors to be used in conjunction with a main apps processor. Many designers are also intent on beefing up the performance of their own apps processors, by re-crafting graphics cores (e.g., Nvidia's Tegra K1) and/or adding more processor cores (e.g., MediaTek's octa-core apps processor).

"Forbidden wife" exposed

Describing DSP, often deeply embedded in an apps processor, as a "forbidden wife," Gideon Wertheizer, CEO of Ceva, a DSP IP core supplier, said in an interview with EE Times that DSP cores are back in demand.

That trend was triggered by Qualcomm last summer, he noted, when the cellular chip giant announced the availability of its Hexagon DSP core – used inside the Snapdragon chip – for third-party programmers. The move caught competing apps processor companies off guard, said Wertheizer.

In the past, Qualcomm rarely highlighted its Hexagon DSP cores, despite the fact that Snapdragon uses two DSP cores for base band processing, and another DSP core for application processing. Now that Qualcomm is courting independent programmers to write software to the latter, Qualcomm's competitors are taking a fresh interest in the forbidden wife, said Wertheizer.

Leading mobile OEMs are already making a few tweaks. Look no further than Samsung's Galaxy S4.

Fujitsu's apps "processor lite"?

A version of the Galaxy S4, primarily in the US market, uses in its system both Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor and an extra image processor by Fujitsu. In contrast, the Korean market version of Galaxy S4 employs Samsung Exynos octa-core variant with no additional co-processor.

The Fujitsu processor, which Eran Briman, vice president of marketing for Ceva, calls "apps processor lite," is believed to be offloading some processing-intensive tasks from Snapdragon.

Audio and voice are also examples of process-intensive tasks, Brinman explained. On one end of the spectrum, some mobile SoCs are expected to stay always-on, at low power, to be ready for voice commands. On the other, there is a growing need for multi-channel surround sound—even in mobile audio.

Ceva unveiled at CES its Ceva-TeakLite-4 DSP architecture, designed to fit a "differentiation" strategy pursued by mobile SoC vendors. "We added architectural enhancements including new power optimisation features, new instruction set architecture, and power scaling unit," said Briman. "And we are doing so by keeping it compatible with the previous generation of TeakLite DSP cores."

The latest DSP architecture release is said to reduce power consumption by up to 20% and enable a reduction in code size of up to 30% for key audio and voice codecs, according to the company. Other enhancements include 50 new instructions, improved 64bit data processing support, and scalable data bandwidth up to 128bit.


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