The Taiwanese company MediaTek yesterday presented the Dimensity 1200 and 1100 5G, chipsets for 5G smartphones with the integrated modem, which rival the most advanced of Qualcomm and Samsung, also just announced, and with Apple’s iPhone 12. Last third quarter, MediaTek was the world’s leading manufacturer of chipset for smartphones, according to the consultancy Counterpoint, and now it wants to position itself well in the chipset market for mid-range and high-end 5G smartphones with these new products. MediaTek estimates that 500 million 5G smartphones could be sold this year compared to 200 million in 2020, according to its corporate vice president J. C. Hsu.
MediaTek has delivered more than 45 million units of its Dimensity range of 5G chipset to smartphone manufacturers, made up of the 700, 800 and 1000 series since the beginning of 2020, to which the 1100 and 1200 are now added. So far , MediaTek chipsets were intended for low-end and mid-range smartphones, the most important market but also the most economical and with the lowest margins. With the Dimensity 1200 and 1100 5G, the Taiwanese company not only wants to catch up with Qualcomm in the chipset market for 5G smartphones, but also to compete in the higher-end models, in which it was not present until now.
At the moment, Qualcomm’s most advanced 5G chipset is the SnapDragon 888 5G, introduced last December, and which is sold alongside the x60 modem, which is also beginning to be manufactured. The Galaxy S21 smartphone, which Samsung presented a week ago and which will go on sale in early February, will be one of the first to include Qualcomm’s SnapDragon 888 5G in devices to be sold in the United States, because the S21 that will be They will be marketed in the Asian and European markets and will carry the Exynos 2100 chipset manufactured by Samsung, which has also just been announced.
MediaTek’s 5G chipsets do not work in the millimeter bands present only in the United States, as it does with Qualcomm’s, but instead they have a fully integrated 5G modem
Samsung’s higher-end smartphones traditionally incorporate a Qualcomm chipset in the versions destined for the United States and from Samsung itself in the rest of the world markets. It already happened, among others, with the Galaxy S10 and S20. When the S21s with chipset from Qualcomm and Samsung are commercially available, it will be possible to see which one will achieve greater benefits. Most likely, anyway, they are very similar regardless of the chipset manufacturer, as has happened with the previous models, because we are talking, in both cases, of products of the highest level. On Samsung’s international site, the chipset included in the S21 is not specified, although it is clarified on Samsung’s American site that it bears the 888.
If until now all of Qualcomm’s most advanced smartphone chipsets were made by the Taiwanese company TSMC, the world’s leading manufacturer of custom chipsets, now some of Qualcomm’s chipsets are also manufactured by Samsung. It is not very clear if some Qualcomm chipset series are manufactured by TSMC and others by Samsung or if some Qualcomm series are manufactured by TSMC and Samsung interchangeably. In any case, whoever the manufacturer is, it is clear that Qualcomm gets the best product. And Samsung, since it also manufactures chipset for Qualcomm apart from smartphones with its chipset, does not care so much that some of its smartphones include Qualcomm products. Everything is part of the complex commercial and manufacturing agreements between brands.
More powerful and efficient chipset, for less than 6 GHz
Hsu assured, in the presentation of the Dimensity 1200, that this chipset offers 22% more processing power and 25% improvement in energy efficiency than the Dimensity 1000 5G, which was for now the most advanced of the company and commercially introduced in mid-2020. The Dimensity 1200 also offers better image and video quality than Apple’s iPhone 12, as specified by the MediaTek manager to make it clear that his product is very competitive.
One of the most substantial differences between Qualcomm and Samsung’s more advanced chipsets with MediaTek’s is that the former work with all frequency bands, both below 6 GHz and millimeter, while the Dimensity only work below of 6 GHz. This, in principle, is a disadvantage for MediaTek products when it comes to marketing them in the United States, but it also makes them less complex and with a lower manufacturing cost.
Millimeter waves, for now and at least until the middle of this decade, will only work in some very localized cities in the United States, because the rest of the world has chosen to work in the 3.5 GHz band and below. In the United States, therefore, MediaTek chipsets will be at a disadvantage because they will not be able to connect to millimeter networks, but in the rest of the world they will have the competitive advantage of their lower theoretical manufacturing cost. It should be noted that all high-end MediaTek chipsets are manufactured by TSMC, as is also the case with Apple’s, so the quality of MediaTek, Qualcomm and Apple products, and in a way those of Samsung, is comparable.
MediaTek expects global demand for 5G smartphones to be two and a half times higher than last year, which may exacerbate the current shortage of components in the global market
At the presentation of the new Dimensity, the three major Chinese national operators were present. For many observers, it is a sign that in China there is no fear that the United States will veto MediaTek products used by Chinese smartphone manufacturers, even if they are manufactured by TSMC, as it has done with Huawei’s Kirin, which They were also made by TSMC although they were designed by HiSilicon, Huawei’s now independent semiconductor subsidiary.
The United States has alleged that TSMC used software and machinery designed and patented by the United States in its semiconductor production lines, which, in its view, gave it the right to veto the sale of products manufactured by TSMC to Huawei. It remains to be seen what decision the now president of the United States, Joe Biden, will finally make regarding the prohibition of TSMC from supplying chips to Huawei. Also the response that the Chinese government will take in the coming weeks on this issue, at a time when Huawei should already be finishing its stored chips until the end of September, when the US ban came into force.
On the weekend of January 9, China approved by decree, effective immediately, that its companies and compatriots ignore punitive orders issued by foreign countries, in a clear attempt to shield them from interference or harassment from the United States. or other countries. Europe is also very upset that many European companies, such as the Dutch ASML, the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductor production lines supplying TSMC or Samsung among others, or European chip manufacturers such as ST Microelectronics or Infineon, have been harmed and orders stalled while American companies, such as Intel or Micron, were given permission to continue selling their products to Chinese companies, including Huawei. The framework agreement between the European Union and China signed on December 31 could perhaps unravel the situation and that at least European companies would not be harmed by the trade conflict between the United States and China.
Integrated and non-integrated 5G modems
Another difference of the Dimensity chipsets is that they all have the integrated 5G modem, as also happens with the Exynos 2100, or the previous 990, from Samsung. Qualcomm’s most advanced SnapDragon, such as the 865 and 856+ 5G or the newly introduced 870, come with the loose X55 modem, a product with a year of life. Apple’s iPhone 12 also includes the X55. The SnapDragon 888, however, already includes the latest version of Qualcomm’s modem, the X60, but also loose. This makes, according to some analysts, consume more energy.
At the level of integration technologies, those used to manufacture the Sasmung, Qualcomm and MediaTek chips are at the highest level, although those used by Samsung to manufacture the Exynos, with extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) techniques, are theoretically more advanced, as is the case with TSMC for Qualcomm, with rules of five nanometers while for MediaTek six nanometers are used. They are distinctions, however, somewhat artificial, because for many years the designation of nanometers in a generation of semiconductors has nothing to do with the physical distance between transistors, as it did in the nineties, and it is a fundamentally commercial concept.
Chipsets, on the other hand, are not sold loose but are fully integrated into smartphones and it is their manufacturer who decides to associate them with other components of more or less quality, be it the cameras, screens or the internal design of the device so that the antennas have better reception. In the end, therefore, the intrinsic quality of the chipset is a very important parameter but the overall performance of the smartphone also depends on other parameters and, above all, on the commercial positioning of the product that the manufacturer decides, apart from the fixed price.
What is clear is that the 5G smartphone chipset market is now much more competitive with MediaTek’s announcements, which until now was basically in the middle and lower band. It is also at the expense of what will happen to Huawei’s chipsets, which were manufactured by TSMC until half a year ago and until a year ago it was the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer, at a level very similar to that of Samsung. The level of integration required to make the Kirins makes only Samsung the other company capable of making them, although if it did, it would likely run into the same hurdles to serve Huawei as TSMC. Despite the fact that Samsung has obtained the license from the United States to sell some of its chips, such as memory, to Chinese companies, from which Huawei can source.
If the MediaTek manager is right and this year 2021, around 500 million 5G smartphones will be shipped, compared to 200 million last year, which is in line with the predictions of other consultancies, there will be a market for all chipset manufacturers for 5G smartphones. The problem, in any case, may come from the shortage of chips that are already around the world, despite the considerable increase in production in recent months. Many manufacturers, especially automobiles, are struggling to supply them with the chips in demand and have had to shut down entire production lines.
If the demand for 5G smartphones actually grows two and a half times that of last year, the shortage of chips may worsen, because some studies suggest that a 5G smartphone consumes up to ten times more chips than a 4G smartphone. It may also happen that the expected demand for 5G smartphones in the second half of the year cannot be fully supplied, due to lack of components.
It would be quite ironic if the demand for 5G smartphones could not be covered in the end due to lack of some components, although this is what has been happening with computers for a few months. The solution of the smartphone manufacturers, in this case, would be simply to increase the price of the devices to adjust the demand to the shortage of supply. It would be the opposite of what happened in the middle of the year in China, where the prices of smartphones plummeted to boost demand. Many unknowns to clear throughout the year.