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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.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.