Being the keynote speaker at a huge event like CES isn’t easy. The company/speaker is charged with giving a birds-eye view of the entire consumer electronics industry while showcasing its own products and articulating a vision of the near-term future… all in 60-90 minutes. It was also Qualcomm’s first time at bat. Before this year, either Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer had opened every CES for well over a decade.
But even summoning every scrap of charity I could scrape out of my soul, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ keynote was something of a train wreck. Key highlights included:
- Obnoxious hipster parodies of actual human beings. These assembled on stage to declare the existence of a new cohort — Generation M (or Born Mobile, if you prefer that term). On behalf of Generation Y, I am preemptively declaring war on Generation M.
- Steve Ballmer
- Big Bird
- Guillermo del Toro
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
- Actress Alice Eve, who plays Carol Marcus in the upcoming film Star Trek Into Darkness
- A Rolls Royce
- Maroon 5 (But since Qualcomm apparently didn’t have a license to stream Maroon 5, the webcast audience was treated to silence, then Dido — while Maroon 5 was still on stage)
If you’re going to put all those elements together, you’d better have a hell of a plan for doing it. Qualcomm didn’t.
The big tech news of the keynote was the announcement of the new Snapdragon 800 family. Qualcomm is introducing a new marketing strategy for its upcoming devices — the current Snapdragon S1-S4 designations will be replaced by the Snapdragon 800, 600, 400, and 200 families. Krait, Qualcomm’s custom CPU architecture that’s based on ARMv7 instruction set, is also getting an update. The new cores are the Krait 300 and Krait 400.
Krait 300 is a higher-clocked version of the current Snapdragon S4 series processor with a new L2 cache prefetcher, better branch prediction, and higher clock speeds. The new chip will hit 1.9GHz compared to 1.5GHz for the original Krait. Qualcomm has specifically improved on the chip’s power consumption, which may be the most important news of all. Google’s Nexus 4 throttles at room temperature when the CPU and GPU are tested; hopefully the Krait 300 can avoid this. The S600 family will continue using Qualcomm’s Adreno 320 GPU.
The Krait 400 is something rather different. Unlike the Krait 300, which is built on TSMC’s 28nm low-power process, the Krait 400 uses 28nm HPM (High Performance for Mobile applications). This is TSMC’s “best of both worlds” process; the foundry claims that it provides “better speed than 28HP (high power) and similar leakage power as 28LP.” This new Krait is capable of speeds of up to 2.3GHz in a quad-core configuration.
GPU information was a bit vague. The new Socs will use the Adreno 330, which the company states offers up to 2x the performance of Adreno 320. The S800 will support Ultra HD / 4K output, though that’s only going to be useful if you own a compatible TV above 46 inches and sit four feet away.
There are a few take-aways here. One is that the new S800 family could be very nice in Windows RT notebooks, where battery sizes are larger. A quad-core Krait at 2.3GHz should deliver excellent performance and compete nicely with Intel and AMD at the low end of the notebook market. For tablets and smartphones, I’m more concerned with battery life and power dissipation than anything else.
Watching Jacobs, I was struck by the growing disparity between what sort of wireless capabilities Qualcomm promises and the reality of what carriers deliver. According to Jacobs, Krait 400′s ability to stream high definition video “really delivers on the promise of 4G.”
If you’re AT&T or Verizon, I suppose that’s true. According to AT&T’s data calculator, 30 hours of standard definition video per month will consume 3.6GB of data, while HD video chews through 9.2GB. Verizon doesn’t break down by video resolution, but it does offer a bandwidth estimation tool for 3G vs. 4G streaming.
On AT&T, you’ll pay at least $ 110 for 4GB of standard video streaming. If you actually wanted to stream 10GB worth of data to your smartphone, you’re looking at $ 185 a month. Verizon will run you $ 150. Keep in mind, we’ve only calculated video — toss in some additional surfing over cellular, and you could blow right through these prices.
That financial reality puts a damper on any claim to deliver on the promise of 4G, but the technology behind the products is still darned impressive. Tegra 4 is clearly going to have some competition, as will AMD’s Kabini and Intel’s next-generation Atom.