MediaTek has revealed an upcoming Helio X30 system-on-chip (SoC) that will likely be one of the first 10nm fabricated SoCs to arrive when it ships in mid-2017. The deca-core mobile SoC will also be one of the first to use ARM’s new Cortex-A73 successor to the Cortex-A72, according to PhoneRadar, which based its story in part on an EETimes China interview [translated] with MediaTek CTO Zhu Shangzu.
Manufactured using TSMC’s 10nm FinFET process, the mobile-focused Helio X30 has a tri-cluster design with two 2.8GHz, Cortex-A73 based “Artemis” cores, as well as four 2.2GHz Cortex-A53 cores and four 2.0GHz Cortex-A35 cores. The X30 also sports the high-end, quad-core PowerVR 7XT GPU, which is capable of driving VR headsets, says PhoneRadar.
The Helio X30 will support up to 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM and is powerful enough to drive a 26-megapixel rear-facing camera, as well as a front-facing cam. The SoC is said to support UFS 2.1 storage, as well as a three carrier aggregation (3CA) modem that supports the speedy CAT 12 LTE standard.
MediaTek’s latest SoC follows its similarly 10-core, but 20nm fabricated Helio X20 and X25. These SoCs debuted the tri-cluster concept, but use only two architectures as opposed to three with the X30. The X20 and X25 have two Cortex-A72 cores and two quad-core banks of Cortex-A53 cores with different clock rates. The Helio X25, which is exclusive to the Android-based Meizu Pro 6 smartphone, clocks the Cortex-A72 cores higher to 2.5GHz instead of 2.3GHz and has a faster 850MHz version of the Mali T880 MP4 GPU.
Cortex-A73 cores should provide a 30 percent better sustained performance and efficiency than Cortex-A72, claims ARM, which is in the process of being acquired by SoftBank. The tiny, 0.65 x 0.65mm design, which has been licensed by HiSilicon and Marvell, in addition to MediaTek, features an Artemis microarchitecture borrowed from the rarely used Cortex-A17 chip. Artemis emphasizes “sustained performance,” which means that mobile devices can maintain peak performance for longer periods before being forced to throttle down due to heat buildup. The Helio X30 also features power-efficient Cortex-A35 cores for its low-end cluster. According to ARM, Cortex-A35 draws about 33 percent less power per core and occupies 25 percent less silicon area, compared to Cortex-A53. The -A35 is not as power efficient as the new, IoT-focused Cortex-A32, which is slower, but smaller and more efficient. Cortex-A32 is the first ARMv8 chip that works only in 32-bit mode.
Coming Up: Apple A10 and Snapdragon 821
According to PhoneRadar, the Helio X30 won’t ship for another year, either at the end of the second quarter or the beginning of the third. A lot can happen in that time, including the upcoming Apple A10 due in the iPhone 7, which is said to be fabricated at 10nm as well. The latest rumors has Apple sticking with two Cortex-A72 or -A73-like cores, following the minimalist design of the dual-core, 16nm Apple A9/A9X. Previously, the A10 was rumored to have between three and six cores.
In AnTuTu benchmarks the dual-core Apple A9 has beat most other Android-targeted mobile SoCs with many more cores. The A9 was edged out only by Qualcomm’s quad-core, 14nm Snapdragon 820, which has four Cortex-A72 like “Kyro” cores, although the 14nm, octa-core Samsung Exynos 8890 was close behind. In other benchmarks, the A9 has beaten the Helio X20 and X25.
It’s unclear whether Apple has proven that high core counts don’t matter or whether Big.Little dual- and tri-cluster SoC designs have yet to evolve to their full potential. Battery life and other considerations are also important. It remains to be seen how these complex multi-core designs are following through on promises to offer smoother transitions between operation modes like high-power video and VR, standard text and voice, and sleep/idle.
Meanwhile, with the move to VR and augmented reality, GPUs are becoming almost as important as CPUs. Indeed Imagination’s PowerVR 7XT is expected to beat out the the Helio X20’s ARM Mali GPU in high-end gaming.
MediaTek cares more about competition on high-end Android devices than it does about Apple. Principally, this comes down to Qualcomm and Samsung, with upstarts like Kirin advancing from below. Qualcomm recently introduced a modest upgrade to the Snapdragon 820 called the Snapdragon 821. Due to arrive in devices later this year, the SoC is claimed to offer 10 percent faster performance and provide better battery life than the 820.
Intel’s Kaby Lake Stays at 14nm
If all had gone according to plan it would be Intel, not MediaTek, announcing the first 10nm processor this month. Last month, Intel began shipping its seventh-generation Kaby Lake core processors, but with few details. We do know that the 7th Gen Core CPUs, which were originally meant to debut a 10nm process, will instead stick with the same 14nm process used by the sixth-gen Skylake and fifth-gen Broadwell chips.
Intel’s ditching of its traditional “tick-tock” product release cadence is a sign that the Moore’s Law pace of chip miniaturization is slowing. Still Intel’s 10nm “Cannonlake” is expected in 2017, and on the ARM side, TSMC is already working on a 7nm process. The actual transistor density of the 7nm design is expected to be very similar to the 10nm Intel process, however.
Meanwhile, Kaby Lake should offer incremental performance improvements over Skylake while squashing some of the bugs that have nipped at Skylake’s heels. We’ll find out more next week at the Intel Developer Forum. One thing Kaby Lake won’t be is a mobile processor, unless you count high-end tablets and all-in-ones. Intel appears to have dropped future development on its 14nm “Cherry Trail” Atom SoCs, which failed to win over many phone vendors, although more embedded-oriented SoCs like the “Braswell” Celeron, Pentium, and Atom x5-e8000 continue to do well.