The International ARM Race: Rise Of The Chinese SoC

Thanks to low prices and a gradual increase in both quality and performance, Chinese chip makers are starting to pose serious problems for Qualcomm, Nvidia and others.

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.

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  • blackmagnum
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!
  • 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.
  • jjjjkkkk
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list
  • Draven35
    Quote:
    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.
  • blubbey
    Quote:
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!


    ARM are British though..... (unless I'm missing something which is entirely possible).
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Quote:
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese remove it from the list


    Since when is Taiwanese not Chinese? Read a book.
  • oxiide
    Quote:
    Quote:
    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.
  • 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.
  • Au_equus
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Quote:
    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.

    ... as recognized by the US and said partners, but not by the United Nations.
  • mliska1
    I've got a RK3066 in one of those $100 MINIX boxes that are on Newegg. It's pretty powerful for what I need and the MINIX box has been rock solid. It is running on Android 4.0 though and I can't find a way to upgrade it.
  • Avus
    If people can jailbreak a closed source OS like iOS, I am sure people can do the same with these garbage Chinese Android OS. If these garbage are popular enough, people will going to make them "open source".
  • SWEETMUSK
    Please stop saying that Taiwan is equal to China . We are different , yes maybe Taiwanese's Ancestor are the same from china but now we are different!! just like England and America before . we speak same language but doesn't mean we are the same. is Canda and America are the same country ? because they both speak english?NO they are not the same! Taiwanese got a lot different Politics,Community and Traditional compare to the China please put 2 flag on which one is Taiwan and which one is China Thank you
  • Saga Lout
    SWEETMUSK - please stop posting duplicates. Also, anyone else doing so for voting purposes could be banned from Tom's.
  • allenpan
  • Simi69
    This article exaggerates the performance of many of these SOC's and fails to mention the large volume of very low binned chips that should never have been released finding their way into cheap tablets. The rockchip 3188 is a prime example of this, constantly locking up if put under any real pressure. Which is a shame as the rockchip 3066 was an excellent chip.

    It also skips the most ubiquitous of the mediatek chips the mtk6582 which was released just before the mtk6592 as a replacement to the mtk6589, and is the Chinese (Taiwanese) chip most likely to be encountered in budget phones the west at the moment. I appreciate the effort of the article though, and with a bit of cleaning up could be a good reference for those wishing to delve into the world of Chinese smartphones.
  • ldo
    Just a note that there is no issue of “spirit” as far as open-sourcing kernels goes. Android uses the Linux kernel, which is released under the GPL. That means that, if you redistribute it, you *must* offer the source. Otherwise you’re in violation of the licence.
  • andy5174
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Quote:
    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.
    ... as recognized by the US and said partners, but not by the United Nations.


    rofl! Peoples from all over the world know that Taiwan is an independent country including you Chinese. You Chinese just don't admit it! China's economy will become a joke when China is no longer the cheapest place for manufacturing. By then, no country will support your *OWNERSHIP claim of Taiwan politically. BTW, even now, no one but you Chinese support the stupid claim in non-political situations. Truth always hurts, PITA Chinese!
  • andy5174
    Automatic tripple posted.... odd system!

    SWEETMUSK - please stop posting duplicates. Also, anyone else doing so for voting purposes could be banned from Tom's.
    It's the forum system!
  • andy5174
    Automatic tripple posted.... odd system!
  • somebodyspecial
    The money is being made in the high end, not the $100-200 phones and they are not the same. If they were even close you couldn't sell the $600+ versions.

    "Android is what allows $100 to $200 devices to work just as well as $600 flagship devices."

    So a free OS somehow makes up for a $400 difference when both sides get the same free OS? I'm confused. It's the hardware that sells the $600 version and the differences between that hardware and what is in the $200 or less models. That doesn't have much to do with the OS, which on the cheap phones is closed as noted. If anything the OS screws the cheap guys because they mess with it and close it.

    http://www.arctablet.com/blog/featured/rockchip-rk3288-with-mali-t760-gpu-shows-up-on-gfx-benchmark/
    Manhattan for instance offscreen rk3288 (their latest just hitting shelves) =9.6fps
    K1 in the same test on shield tablet 31.7fps.
    http://anandtech.com/show/8296/the-nvidia-shield-tablet-review/5
    So a $200 phone scores 1/3 of a $600 phone. The math sort of makes sense right? 3x the perf for 3x the price. Quite the value considering you usually get just a small portion more in most cases of other products for a massive increase in price like here. You generally don't get a direct price to perf correlation. Games will run at $200 performance not $600. Not even in the same league.

    T-rex offscreen same story, 21fps vs. 68fps. Even better at over 3x perf. This thing is barely a match for Snapdragon S800 as shown.

    "On the GPU side, it doesn't look like Rockchip spares any expense, since the company is using a high-end Mali-T764 GPU"

    Umm...Really? If that's ARM's high end gpu, it leaves a LOT to be desired vs. K1...LOL. I'll take a K1 to go please. These are no threat to anyone buying $600 phones, who will keep doing it for 3x the perf especially as gaming amps up on these things.

    "The GPU also supports the latest mobile graphics features"
    Nope, no opengl 4.4 etc.

    The A80 allwinner dx9.3 and no opengl 4.4 either or ES3.1+. So lacking in dx11+ and OpenGL and ES features.

    Rockchip and allwinner are your leaders you say, but it seems they're way behind and have no chance of stealing high end or even the middle.

    Also the Pico tablet with 3288 is $255 so this is even worse vs. a $360 Shield tablet on with the gamepad ($299 without). I'll take the shield for 3x the perf everyday at this price difference.
    "It’s too early to tell, but the A80 could put Allwinner in competition with the likes of Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia."
    It's not too early to tell...Last gen at best. Wishful thinking.

    I could go on but you should get the point tomshardware.
  • somebodyspecial
    It remains to be seen if K1 will end up in a phone, but tablet to tablet makes the point at $255 vs. $299 and S805 is the new competition for phones which blows away the S800 gpu also which already wins as shown in the link before.

    Just in case someone's about to chime in on the phone comment. ;) Denver will surely get into a phone if K1 32bit doesn't as it's power on the cpu side should be a lot better and surely they'll get something from the gpu side by then too (they had another 4-6 months to optimize it).
  • Avus
    It is China we are talking about... they are good (and famous) at copy and making fake stuff. I don't really mind they "close sourced" their designs. They better keep those design for themselves.

    Do you also like their dog food formula??