MWC Shanghai: Qualcomm targets wearables and auto with new Snapdragons

At last week’s Mobile World Congress Shanghai event, Qualcomm pushed aside its legal troubles with Apple and others, and sought to back up its claim to be the “de facto R&D arm of the industry” with a swathe of new chips geared to targeted expansion markets such as automotive and wearables.

That self-description, used by the company’s general counsel Don Rosenberg in response to Apple’s most recent allegations, is less hyperbolic than it would be in most organizations’ mouths. Qualcomm does harness its huge engineering resource to be at the cutting edge of new developments in wireless chips, but it will inevitably be harder to retain that position when it has to compete in many different sectors, rather than relying on its utter dominance of handset modems.

The need to diversify as the smartphone market’s growth slows, and become a master of many trades, lies behind Qualcomm’s planned acquisition of NXP (see separate item), and its development of many strands within its Snapdragon system-on-chip family, to suit a growing range of devices and markets. In Shanghai, it showed off the Snapdragon Wear 1200 SoC, which now supports both the new cellular machine-to-machine standards, LTE-M and NB-IoT.

The 1200 is designed as a complement to the existing Wear 1100 and 2100 SoCs, and is pitched at wearables like activity trackers and elderly monitors. Qualcomm says the design enables ultra-low power operation, essential for IoT applications, and supports a range of external sensor hub options, as well as the major positioning options (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and BeiDou), together with cloud-based location services based on cellular or WiFi.

The launch partners are ODMs Borqs and Quanta, which have designed reference platforms based on the Wear 1200, targeting child, elderly, enterprise and fitness wearables. The pair say that the designs are ready to commercialize, and like all reference designs, the aim is to accelerate uptake by reducing time to market for developers.

Helped by such partnerships, Qualcomm said that, since its entrance into the wearables space three years ago, over 150 wearable products have come to market based on its chips. That translates, it says, into over 80% share in Android Wear smartwatches (both launched and announced) – and a new one was announced at the event, the Xiaotiancai Z3 children’s smartwatch, which runs on the Wear 2100.

Qualcomm also a product win with Chinese automaker Geely (the owner of Volvo). The firm has chosen one of the automotive members of the Snapdragon clan, the 820Am, to power the next generation of its in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) platforms in Geely vehicles. Qualcomm says that the Geely systems will be the first in the world to use an integrated LTE modem (the 820Am includes an X12 modem), and are expected to launch in 2020. Geely already uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon LTE modems for telematics apps.

Geely notes that it also expects to use Snapdragon in upcoming generations of its iNTEC platform, which includes the G-Netlink system for remote interactions between a car’s owner and the vehicle; and in G-Pilot, its ADAS and autonomous driving platform.

“China is emerging as a source of automotive innovation, not only benefiting Chinese customers but also the rest of the world, by quickly adopting and commercializing leading edge car technology,” said Patrick Little, SVP and GM for automotive at Qualcomm Technologies.

Another interesting launch, for wearables and for the core handset market, provides a way to design buttonless front panels for devices. The ultrasonic Qualcomm Fingerprint Sensors claim to be able to scan through displays, thick glass, and metal, with support for underwater operation, as well as heartbeat and blood flow detection.

The design opens doors for virtualized home buttons on smartphones, which would still support fingerprint scanning thanks to the through-display operation that Qualcomm is pitching. The new technology has been designed for the Snapdragon 630 and 660 platforms, but will work with future implementations too. The glass and metal sensors are available now, with Qualcomm expecting them to appear in devices in H1 2018. The display sensor will be evaluating with OEMs in Q4 2018. Vivo’s Xplay 6 was the demonstration phone at the show.

The new range houses different display, glass, and metal sensors, and Qualcomm says it is the first commercially announced ultrasonic heart and blood monitoring sensor for use in mobile authentication. While these sensors will probably be used in health-focused applications, Qualcomm is also focused on using them to enable new form factors and biometric authentication.

The final announcement in Shanghai was more focused on Qualcomm’s core smartphone markets. The Snapdragon 450 SoC is a processing platform aimed at the mid-tier smartphone market, and the first to use a new 14nm FinFET casting process – which Qualcomm says makes significant improvements to battery life and compute power.

The octacore design houses an ARM Cortex A53 CPU and Qualcomm’s Adreno 506 GPU, which between them claim to provide a 25% performance improvement compared to the Snapdragon 435. The battery life claims have gone up by four hours, the more efficient GPU providing a claimed 30% power consumption while gaming. Connectivity is provided by the X9 LTE modem, with 802.11ac MU-MIMO available too, along with USB 3.0, the first appearance of that protocol in the 400-series.