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The International ARM Race: Rise Of The Chinese SoC

Allwinner

Allwinner Technology is a China-based fabless semiconductor company founded in 2007. It was one of the first few independent companies to become an ARM licensee, and is probably the first Chinese SoC manufacturer to get our attention in the U.S. with its Android-oriented platforms. Its single-core A10 (Cortex-A8 with Mali 400 GPU), released in late 2010, proved that a Chinese processor could compete with more heavily-marketed brands. Even still, its focus has been largely on mid- and low-end budget tablets, PMPs. and HDMI media sticks, and not so much on smartphones.

The A10 was so prolific that it distorted prices in the Chinese tablet market for almost a year. Its combination of a modest ARMv7 CPU and a then-leading-edge Mali 400 GPU meant that even though it employed one core, it could match the gaming performance of Nvidia’s substantially more expensive Tegra 2. Indeed, such excitement grew around the Mali GPU that a GPU emulation layer, called Chainfire 3D (no longer in development), gained a lot of support from customers with A10-equipped devices.

Back then, forums were filled with reports of A10-based tablets running quite a few high-end Tegra 2-optimized games smoothly and, in some cases, with more features enabled (such as FSAA) than what was thought to be theoretically possible at the time on Nvidia’s GeForce ULP GPU.

Allwinner is again focusing on premium GPU performance with its quad-core A31, based on Cortex-A7 and equipped with the PowerVR SGX 544 GPU. This is the same GPU that was used in the third-gen iPad, thus enabling a whole swathe of 2048x1536p-class 9- and 10-inch Android tablets at budget prices.

SocCPU CoreGPU CoreMax ResolutionCamera Video Encode/Decode
A10Cortex A8 (1-core) @ 1.0 GHzMali 4001920x1080N/A1080p @ 30 FPS
A10sCortex A8 (1-core) @ 1.0 GHzMali 4001920x1080N/A1080p @ 30 FPS
A13Cortex A8 (1-core) @ 1.0 GHzMali 4001920x1080N/A1080p @ 30 FPS
A20Cortex A7 (2-cores) Mali 400 MP21920x10808MP1080p @ 30 FPS / 2160p @ 30 FPS
A31Cortex A7 (4-cores)PowerVR SGX 544 MP22048 ×1536 12MP1080p @ 30 FPS / 4kx2k @ 30 FPS
A80 Cortex A7 (4-cores) / Cortex A15 (4-cores)PowerVR 6230 2560x160016MP4K×2K @ 30 FPS (h.265/VP9 support)

A10

The A10 SoC has been a major success for Allwinner; it's what put the company on the map as a Chinese mobile chip maker. It was mostly used to drive Android- and Linux-based mini-sticks, but also some sub-$150 tablets like the Ainol Novo 7 Aurora, from India. The processor supports a maximum resolution of 1920x1080, though it’s mostly often seen in tablets with 1024x600 or 1280x800 resolutions.

A10s

The A10s is basically a stripped-down A10 that’s less expensive. Allwinner uses the A10s to target cheap mini TV sticks. It also adds DLNA and Wi-Fi display support. Compared to the A10, you get better power management, too.

A13

Allwinner’s A13 is one of the company's more recently released chips, and is targeted mainly at small tablets and e-readers. However, even though it's new, the processor only comes with a Cortex-A8 CPU and Mali-400 MP1 GPU. This isn’t one of Allwinner's more powerful offerings.

A20

The A20 followed the A10, doubling CPU and GPU core count, while switching to Cortex-A7 from -A8 for better battery life and adding support for cameras. Cleverly, it was pin-compatible with the A10, theoretically meaning that tablet manufacturers could just use it in place of its predecessor to save design time. In practice, though, the market had already started shifting to quad-core platforms, so the A20 saw mixed success.

A31

The A31 seems to be recreating the A10 budget hero experience. Just as that old classic introduced 720/800p tablets to the market at affordable prices, the A31 seems to be doing the same for Retina-class resolutions in the 9.7-inch range. The -A7 CPU aspect of the chipset isn't particularly powerful, but it is extremely efficient. On the other hand, the PowerVR 544MP2 GPU is extremely powerful, maxing out many benchmarks. The chipset has also found its way into HDMI sticks. It's currently Allwinner's highest-end SoC, and it also supports camera sensors up to 12 MP.

A80

The Allwinner A80 is expected to arrive this year, at which point it’ll be Allwinner's highest-end chip. It’s too early to tell, but the A80 could put Allwinner in competition with the likes of Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. The processor will utilize big.Little technology, with quad-core Cortex-A7 and -A15 clusters. The chip is as high-end as you could expect, so it will also have support for 4K video and the hardware-accelerated  H.265 and VP9 codecs.