Next-gen Chipsets: next-gen convergence

Feb 27, 2010

Even before you leave an event like Mobile World Congress 2010 you get used to people asking you what the most interesting or exciting thing you've seen at the show has been. This year, while there was no shortage of impressive hardware imminent to the market, the real promise for me was in next-gen chipsets. Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, Freescale, Marvell, Qualcomm and others had all brought their wares along to demo, and the promises - not to mention the step up from existing platforms - were flowing thick and fast. So, what sort of devices can we expect using these new chipsets?

Tablets are an obvious choice - and I've made no bones about my love of the platform - with NVIDIA's second-gen Tegra already picked for Notion Ink's slate and various other companies showing off prototypes or shipping tablets built on their offerings. Their frugality also makes them equally at home in smartphones, and of course chipsets like Snapdragon have already found their place in smartbooks such as HP Compaq's Airlife 100.

Drilling down, though, what's possible now that we couldn't necessarily do before? Dual-display devices are shipping in a limited way already - Barnes & Noble's nook is on shelves, and Entourage's eDGe should arrive with preorder customers imminently - but the breadth of their flexibility is pared down. Most if not all of the new chipsets discussed at MWC can support high-resolution output to at least two panels simultaneously; something like TI's OMAP4 can drive dual on-device screens while pumping out 1080p HD via an HDMI in fact.

Texas Instruments OMAP4 demo:

So, how about two displays - let's make them low-power, using a 10-inch Pixel Qi panel or a 5.6-inch mirasol one - in a clamshell, book-style form factor, similar to what MSI and others have mocked up in recent months. Those touchscreen netbook concepts have generally run Intel's Atom platform, but with the latest ARM chipsets they could have better multimedia prowess, longer battery life and the same sort of internet flexibility as the x86 chip. They can also be smaller; I'm picturing something similar to a paperback novel, maybe with a hinge that opens wide enough to stand the device up in landscape orientation for hands-free video watching. Given the chipsets can crunch more megapixels than mobile-sized CMOS sensors have to offer, we'll throw a high-resolution camera with 1080p HD recording in there too; something like the OMAP4 can simultaneously encode Full HD and a lower-resolution, 3G-friendly stream for livecasting.

Since ubiquitous connectivity - kicking off from WiFi and Bluetooth, and of course migrating up through 3G and 4G technologies like WiMAX and LTE - is a given, there'd be no question about making voice-calls (either traditionally or VoIP, and perhaps using a Bluetooth headset or speakerphone) or supporting push-email and real-time social networking updates from Facebook, Twitter and others. Where the true game changer would occur is in removing the battery worry; imagine not having to ration out your usage during the day, safe in the knowledge that you have hour after hour ahead of you. I'd take some sort of inductive charging cradle, perhaps with an HDMI output, for opportune top-ups, but every chipset firm is promising more HD video playback (from a standard smartphone battery) than you could feasibly watch during a single day.

An always-on device should play nicely with the other gadgets you have around you, and that means streamlining ad-hoc pairing and cleverly managing what information gets presented at what time. We've seen some companies - such as Motorola with MOTOBLUR - try to do the latter already, but smartphones lack the processing grunt to bring true intelligence to the issue. In my opinion a successful mobile device doesn't just replicate the desktop experience, mainly because it's intended to span different contexts; instead, it translates information to suit the user's situation. Next-gen chipsets are powerful enough to take sensor input from the real world - look, say, at TI's gesture recognition research, which uses a basic webcam to track hand-movements - and understand the context a user is in, filtering information accordingly. If I'm driving (something that could be worked out from GPS speed, tracking my hands on the wheel, or various other sensor inputs) then the device would know to prioritise only calls and messages from the core group of contacts its seen me communicate regularly with, perhaps making an exception for those people geographically nearby just in case I'm planning on visiting them.

Texas Instruments gesture recognition:

How about gaming? The iPhone 3GS has gained quite a reputation for itself as a decent mobile gaming platform, thanks in no small part to its PowerVR SGX graphics chipset, but our imaginary dual-display device could blow it out the water. Like the Nintendo DSi - only with bigger screens than even the new DSi XL - you could have dual displays for more complex gaming setups; or, since the next-gen chipsets are happy driving different content and running various high-performance apps simultaneously, play games on one screen while monitoring email, browser and other more typical smartphone tasks on the other. Alternatively, how does plugging in an HDTV via HDMI sound, putting your gaming on a big screen? We're talking graphics capabilities potential on a par with an Xbox 360 or PS3.

We're approaching a tipping-point where power management, connectivity, software and - most importantly - user imagination and expectations are promising to coalesce and kick the next generation of mobile devices up another level of functionality. Of course, not everybody wants the same degree of convergence I've described, but the key factor is that it's possible and with less compromise than is necessary right now. You don't have to be an avid gamer to recognise the potential of a chipset that can crunch polygons without breaking its stride, just like you don't have to be a heavy-duty social network addict to appreciate a device that's intelligent enough to tailor its alerts to what's going on around it. The sort of smarts in that sort of device will be enough to make today's so-called smartphones look dumb indeed.

Marvell ARMADA 618 demo:

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