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The International ARM Race: Rise Of The Chinese SoC

ARM-Based SoCs From China Are Poised To Take Off

Rockchip, Allwinner, Spreadtrum, and MediaTek are brand names that a lot of people probably won't recognize. But all of those companies are competing in the same space as Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia for share of the Android-based device market.

When people talk about Android, they often mention products like the Nexus range from Google, the Galaxy line from Samsung, or one of Asus' Transformers, along with HTC, LG, and Sony. And sometimes, depending on the success of marketing campaigns and word of mouth, what also follows are the names of the SoCs powering those smartphones and tablets. Exynos. Snapdragon. Tegra. But that's only part of the story...As more companies compete for your dollar with an ever-increasing portfolio of mobile devices, we're seeing Chinese SoC manufacturers steadily staking claims in the low-cost Android device market. Android, iOS, and mobile computing in general are largely dependent on one U.K.-based company, ARM Holdings. Its history dates back to one of the first commercially successful home PCs of the early 1980s: the 8-bit BBC Micro. This computer was one of three that set the British and European home PC market in motion. The BBC Micro's war with another 8-bit system, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, is now computer legend.

Following the resounding success of the BBC Micro, Acorn (as the company was then known) cut its modern computing teeth on nascent adventures into the optimization of 16-bit CPUs. By intelligently simplifying and removing often-repeated instructions, Acorn developed a more efficient design that could do more with less. This approach is known as RISC, or Reduced Instruction Set Computing. The company's first commercial foray using this technology came in 1983 with the 16-bit Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM. It ran one of the first true multitasking operating systems in production, RISC OS, which, incidentally, was recently re-released as an open-source variant for the popular Raspberry Pi hobbyist PC—yet another device powered by an ARM SoC.

ARM’s emphasis on efficiency powered the company's own range of RISC PCs and operating systems for the next decade. ARM Holdings would later go on to design low-powered RISC-based SoCs for all manner of devices, starting with simple disk controllers and eventually winding up in the mobile computing SoCs at the heart of everything from the Compaq iPAQ to the Apple iPad—and, of course, the vast majority of Android devices.

This ubiquity happened when ARM Holdings cleverly removed manufacturer from its résumé. As part of a trend set in the late 1970s, ARM became a fabless semiconductor designer, allowing it to focus exclusively on design and constant improvements to its RISC architecture without worrying about manufacturing technology. That decision accelerated development and allowed some of the costs incurred during the design process to be offset by ARM licensees, which take the IP and determine how to implement it.

Such an approach has benefits beyond cost savings because it also allows for licensees to customize their SoCs to suit specific purposes. Aspects like the actual GPU, RAM, and modem can be selected, and often even modified, to satisfy any function or budget constraint. You could almost say that ARM SoCs can be built to order, which is of particular importance for companies that want to create devices for so many different needs and markets.

Given a diverse market with room for innovation and a sensitivity to cost, ARM SoCs and the fabless semiconductor industry present an exceptionally good fit for China.

  • blackmagnum
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!
    Reply
  • jossrik
    It'll be interesting to see where manufacturing goes in the future, maybe back to EU or even Africa somewhere maybe. Right now it's hard to see things get cheaper than China, but of course, eventually it will happen. I hear Apple is gonna buy China.
    Reply
  • jjjjkkkk
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list
    Reply
  • Draven35
    The company's first commercial foray using this technology came in 1983 with the 16-bit Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM. It ran one of the first true multitasking operating systems in production, RISC OS,

    Except, the first silicon didn't exist until 1985, and the machine running RISC OS didn't exist until 1987.
    Reply
  • blubbey
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!

    ARM are British though..... (unless I'm missing something which is entirely possible).
    Reply
  • virtualban
    The Chinese may leech off and profit from current available designs, and close-source their 'innovations', but I wonder what will they do when the rest of the world will reverse engineer and use any progress they make without having to answer to the Chinese companies (duh).
    Reply
  • icemunk
    The writer seems to think the RK3288 is a 2015 SOC, however it has been out since April, and many devices are available with it, lots of $200 tablets with 2000X1500 resolution, and a bunch of TV boxes as well for $100. It's an excellent chip, achieving around 40,000 antutu scores. 2015 I'm sure we'll see a brand-new Rockchip, but the RK3288 has been out for some time.
    Reply
  • MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list

    Since when is Taiwanese not Chinese? Read a book.
    Reply
  • oxiide
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list

    Since when is Taiwanese not Chinese? Read a book.
    Hopefully your books mention that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China (mainland China) are two distinct and, for the most part, recognized nations.

    MediaTek is indeed a Taiwanese company, though I'd rather they just specify that in the article rather than being told to remove it over a technicality. It's still relevant to the topic regardless of where they are headquartered.
    Reply
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    Thanks to the author for pointing out the closed-source BS, this makes me hate Mediatek. Others are irrelevant (luckily) so far, don't see their chips in any reasonable devices.
    Reply