All about System-on-Chips - An interview with Qualcomm's Dr. Sandeep Sibal
System-on-Chips are the heart of a smartphone and a tablet. Qualcomm has been a respected name in this segment, what with around 340 devices sporting the Snapdragon chipset.
We met up with Dr. Sandeep Sibal, Country Manager and Vice President, Business Development, Qualcomm India for a freewheeling chat on mobile chipsets, their architectures, their significance and finally their future plans.
We also try to understand how does the performance improve despite shrinking manufacturing processes, how SoC makers are trying to stand out in the crowd and more.
Considering there is such a race amongst system-on-chip (SoC) manufacturers with so many smartphones and tablets sporting them, what is Qualcomm doing to stand out of the crowd? What would you want an end user to know about the advantages of the Snapdragon SoC vis-a-vis the competition?
Competition is good for consumers and the industry and we at Qualcomm welcome competition. It forces everyone to innovate and bring out compelling products. We have established smartphone SoC leadership for Snapdragon processors by engineering excellence into all key parameters including CPU performance, graphics, connectivity and power efficiency.
Unlike many of our competitors, we design our own CPU micro-architecture from the ground up with mobile requirements in mind. Delivering the best mobile experience is all about combining leading technologies and integrating them into a single solution. This is what Qualcomm customers have come to expect from Snapdragon.
With the manufacturing processes reducing in size – S1-65nm, S2 and S3 – 45nm and S4 – 28nm, the power consumed does come down, but what are the other challenges faced and how do you overcome them vis-a-vis the competition?
Although reducing the size of the process technology used in manufacturing process does help in lowering the power consumption, significant additional power savings can be accrued by optimizing the architecture of various CPU cores on the chipset. For example, Snapdragon uses independent power and frequency controls for each of its cores. This helps us run them in accordance with the processing load and avoid any undesirable wastage as well as any thermal radiation issues.
Unique to Qualcomm, our dual-core and quad-core Snapdragon processors feature asynchronous technology that can throttle each core independently. This ensures the phone always uses the optimal amount of CPU power for the task at hand without draining battery life. This results in a speedy, responsive smartphone that lasts you the whole day.
Nowadays smartphones come with dual-core processors or even quad-core processors. But are there enough apps that make use of so many cores?
Currently, very few mobile applications are optimized to take advantage of quad-core CPUs. For that reason, we at Qualcomm focus on designing highly efficient and intelligent quad-core CPUs so that the Snapdragon processor is optimized to provide the best user experience rather than rushing to be first to market. By the time that Snapdragon-enabled devices featuring quad core CPUs are ready to come to market in the second half of 2012, the mobile developer community will be ready to begin providing apps capable of harnessing the power of smartphones and tablets with these capabilities.
Could you elaborate on how you keep the power consumption lower in the Krait processor on the S4? It is said that in the Krait CPU, due to the use of asynchronous multi-processing, each CPU core has an individual clock. Will that not add power circuitry on the die?
As discussed above asynchronous multi-processor architecture, ensures the phone always uses the optimal amount of CPU power for the task at hand without draining battery life.
For example, our Snapdragon APQ8064 is a system on chip that includes four Krait CPUs in addition to the Adreno GPU, dedicated video and audio proecssors and a host of other components. We then integrate all of these advanced technology parts into one fully integrated system on chip. We believe this integrated approach results in better overall performance at lower power. On a pure CPU level, clearly, with more CPU cores comes increased mobile processing performance. However, it is important to note that more CPU or GPU cores do not necessarily mean a better mobile device or user experience. Otherwise, more cores can drain battery life at a very high rate. Qualcomm builds its Snapdragon processors from the ground up, tightly integrating the hardware and software. This ensures optimal power efficiency for both our dual-core and quad-core versions. It’s about the user experience, not number of cores in the device.
Adding asynchronous multi-processing capability does add a little circuitry but it is insignificant when compared to the benefit it brings by reducing unwanted power consumption,and allowing each core to operate at optimal efficiency. It involves significantly less circuitry than adding an additional core as some of our competitors have done.
As the SoC size reduces with subsequent process refreshes, and at the same time we see more features stacked onto the SoC, what sort of drawbacks are expected? For instance, will adding a component or new feature on the SoC (such as 4G, LTE or maybe some new sensor in the future) affect the rest of the components?
Addition of new features increases the overall number of transistors required to achieve the feature set. Some features may also demand increased computing power. For example, with an LTE feature added to the chipset, you need to budget for additional computing power to be able to process the huge amount of data received over high speed LTE data connections.
Addition of any new feature to the SoC needs to be evaluated from an overall experience perspective. A well designed chipset needs to consider and optimize several aspects in unison rather than compromising one at the cost of the other. Snapdragon chipsets are designed to accomplish exactly this. The process technology, number of cores, clock speeds, CPU architecture, etc. are chosen in such a way that the user experience is fully optimized.
Since you have made certain tweaks to the reference design from ARM for the SnapDragon series of processors, do the app developers have to code differently for different SoCs? Or do the app developers just code as they normally would and the SoC hardware optimises the app usage?
Snapdragon processors conform to ARM instruction set. As such all the apps developed using these instruction sets run on Snapdragon processors without any problems. Snapdragon processors use the basic instruction set developed by ARM but they are custom designed and optimized by Qualcomm for mobile applications.
We were shown a lot of demos around Augmented Reality apps. How bullish is Qualcomm as far as Augmented Reality apps go and what are the kind of apps we can look forward to? How has Qualcomm optimized the hardware to make sure that the augmented reality experience is smooth as it involves a simultaneous use of camera, graphics and other elements of the SoC?
Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that marries real world objects around the user with digital/virtual content to allow the user to interact with these objects in a unique, highly engaging manner. Vision based AR is computationally intensive as it requires the app to scan the phone camera image, compare against a database of track able objects, position virtual content/graphics relative to the identified objects and render the content – all this at over 30 frames per-second to offer a seamless user experience. Snapdragon, with its unparalleled performance, allows this experience on Smartphones.
Qualcomm’s AR technology utilizes computer vision algorithms to recognize specific objects and features in the environment, determine the device’s relative position and orientation to these objects and features, and then allows the developer to render graphics relative to these objects and features.
Qualcomm has developed Vuforia, an Augmented Reality platform that Developers can download freely to develop commercial quality Vision based AR Apps easily and quickly for Snapdragon devices. Vuforia has met with enormous success. There are 24,000+ registered AR developers across 130+ countries, developing applications for 400+ models of smartphones and tablets . Over 700 applications have already been launched commercially. In India also we are seeing huge interest for Vuforia amongst the developer community.
With the S4, you have the LTE modem on the chip. What are the advantages of having this arrangement, as opposed to having the LTE module outside the main chip?
Our integrated approach helps in addressing several requirements such as reduced power consumption, compact form factor and ease of smartphone design by OEMs. Integration is also key to taking advantage of the trend of adding increasingly more capabilities to the phone. As we add additional capabilities, we need to do this extremely efficiently. Computing must be done at low power because power is limited by battery size and consumer desire to not have to plug in their phones mid-day. It is only through integration that phones will continue to expand what they can do.
Could you shed some light on the philosophy behind Qualcomm's Reference Design?
The Qualcomm Reference Design (QRD) ecosystem program includes comprehensive handset development platforms and an ecosystem program providing access to third party providers of tested and verified hardware and software components for rapid delivery of commercial high-volume smartphone devices with unique differentiated user experiences.
- The QRD ecosystem program is designed to help device manufacturers developing products for any region whose networks are evolving from 2G to 3G and where high volume smartphones are becoming increasingly popular.
- QRD ecosystem program in intended to help reduce design costs for high volume smartphones, allowing manufacturers to launch new devices more quickly.
- QRD can help facilitate tier 2 & 3 OEMs’ entry into the smartphone manufacturing space, by providing customization flexibility, a comprehensive ecosystem of support and access to potential customers and business relationships which may be helpful to their participation in the smartphone business.
- The QRD development platforms help device manufacturer’s move from product concept to launch much faster and with lower NRE. They allow device manufacturers to focus their development efforts on product differentiation, not building basic smartphone functionality. Participants of the QRD ecosystem program have access to a rich ecosystem of third party hardware component vendors and ISVs with components and applications that have been verified and optimized.
- The QRD development platform is backed by toolsets, resources, profilers, labs and developer websites to support the device manufacturer’s development efforts.
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the QRD development platforms are based on Qualcomm’s leading Snapdragon mobile processors and 3G modem chipsets, which are known throughout the industry to provide the fast processing performance and robust mobile network connectivity that today’s smartphone designs require.
NVIDIA has come out with Tegra 3 which is a four core plus one design, where the fifth core is active only for the most basic of tasks, whereas the other 4 cores take over if the application or use case is demanding. This helps in keeping the power consumption in check. How does Qualcomm plan to compete with that with its quad-core processors?
With our asynchronous multi-processor architecture, a Snapdragon processor can control the voltage and frequency of each of its cores, thereby eliminating the need for an additional core. As such, despite dual or quad-cores, a Snapdragon processor uses only the appropriate number of cores needed to perform the task(s) at hand. Further, each of the cores is used only to the extent they are needed rather than always using them to their full processing capacity.
When can we see Qualcomm chips in devices other than smartphones and tablets for example in TVs and other devices in the future?
We announced Snapdragon processors for smart TVs at CES 2012. You can review the full press release here:
Could you tell us about the next gen Adreno chip ie. The Adreno 320 and what improvements it has as compared to the current gen Adreno chip?
The next generation Adreno 320 will quadruple the GPU performance compared to the current generation Adreno 225.
We think most SoC businesses don't seem to focus on educating and advertising their products to the end user. Instead, they let the device manufacturers create the demand, and try and provide solutions to all manufacturers. Will we ever see the equivalent of an "Intel Inside" campaign for SoC manufacturer's such as yourself, given that competition is heating up? If not, why not?
We have already started a global marketing campaign aimed to raise awareness for Snapdragon processors and drive purchase intent. Qualcomm has conducted research that shows consumers are strongly interested in a better smartphone and tablet experience. We are responding to this feedback by implementing a marketing campaign that will:
- Educate consumers about mobile processors and how they impact the mobile experience
- Show how Snapdragon-enabled devices deliver the best mobile experience
- Make it easier to find Snapdragon-powered devices