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Helio X30 Nabs Speed Lead

TSMC 10nm Enables Premium Performance at Mainstream Prices

March 13, 2017

By Mike Demler


MediaTek has announced its new Helio X30, a tricluster deca-core chip that’s the third member of the elite 10nm smartphone-processor club. Unlike its competitors, however, the company is the first to use TSMC’s new 10nm technology. Samsung was the first semiconductor foundry to reach production at that process node, and it’s manufacturing the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 as well as its own Exynos 9, which it rolled out a few days before the MediaTek announcement (see MPR 1/9/17, “Samsung 10nm Takes Density Crown”).

The new Helio design employs the same arrangement that MediaTek introduced in the 20nm Helio X20: 10 CPUs divided into a dual-core “max” cluster, a quad-core “mid” cluster, and a quad-core “min” cluster (see MPR 5/25/15, “MT6797 Is a Perfect Ten”). The chip upgrades all the subsystems, but some specifications differ from those the company presented last September at its launch event in China (see MPR 10/10/16, “Helio X30 Targets 10 Cores at 10nm”). For its production release, MediaTek reduced the maximum CPU operating frequencies, likely reflecting the immaturity of TSMC’s process. But the 2.5GHz CPU speed is still faster than that of the Snapdragon 835, giving it the speed lead among merchant smartphone processors.

Besides the foundry choice, this new 10nm processor also differs from competitors in its target market. Qualcomm designed into the Snapdragon 835 leading-edge capabilities that are well suited to flagship phones, including Samsung’s Galaxy S (see MPR 1/9/17, “Snapdragon 835 First to 10nm”). But MediaTek aimed a step lower, using the advanced process to integrate notable premium features along with budget-conscious features that better fit $200–$300 mainstream smartphones. Its strategy has delivered share gains in that price tier, mostly at the expense of midrange Snapdragon processors.

MediaTek has even scored design wins at Samsung. Online benchmark reports have surfaced for the Helio P20 in new J-series phones (see MPR 3/14/16, “P20 Pushes Helio to 16nm”), marking the first time the company has won a design at the number-one smartphone vendor. MediaTek reports the Helio family accounted for nearly 20% of its 2016 shipments, a number equivalent to approximately 100 million processors.

CPU Shifts to a New Set of Gears

Like its predecessor, the Helio X20, the new X30 has a CPU arrangement that extends ARM’s two-speed Big.Little to three speeds, as Figure 1 shows. For the top gear, the company replaced the X20’s big Cortex-A72 CPUs with a pair of Cortex-A73s, which deliver performance, power, and area improvements (see MPR 6/6/16, “Cortex-A73 Improves Mobile Efficiency”). We estimate the new cores will increase the chip’s maximum single-thread performance per megahertz by 10%. MediaTek conservatively increased their clock frequency by less than 10%, from 2.3GHz to 2.5GHz, yielding a total single-thread performance boost of roughly 20%. When yields and parameter variations settle down, we expect it will release a faster model as it has with other Helio products (see MPR 1/2/17, “Helio Rises to X27”).

Figure 1. Block diagram of MediaTek’s Helio X30 smartphone platform. BB=baseband; BT=Bluetooth. The chipset includes an audio codec, PMICs, and cellular as well as connectivity RF transceivers. The MT6179 supports three-carrier aggregation on the downlink and two carriers on the uplink.

For the medium-size cores, the X30 retains a quad-Cortex-A53 cluster similar to that of its predecessor. The move from TSMC’s 20nm planar technology to its new 10nm FinFETs increases the A53’s maximum clock frequency to 2.2GHz, a 10% boost compared with the X20.

To save power on tasks with minimum compute requirements, the Helio X20 runs a second set of quad Cortex-A53s at a 30% lower maximum frequency. In the X30, however, ARM’s Cortex-A35 provides a better power/performance tradeoff as well as a 25% area savings (see MPR 11/16/15, “Cortex-A35 Extends Low End”). The A35s deliver 85% of the A53s’ performance per megahertz, but they consume only two-thirds of the power per megahertz.

MediaTek set the mid-to-min clock ratios for a similar performance downshift: 73% in the X30 (0.85 x 1.9GHz / 2.2GHz) versus 70% in the X20 (1.4GHz / 2.0GHz). Although the X30’s min cluster runs at a 35% higher maximum speed than the X20’s min cores (1.9GHz versus 1.4GHz), its more efficient cores consume 10% less power. By employing dynamic voltage and frequency scaling, MediaTek’s CorePilot task scheduler can deliver additional power savings through the energy-efficient tiny CPUs.

GPU Moves to Imagination

The Helio X30 also shifts gears on the graphics engine. It sports a custom quad-core PowerVR Series7XT Plus from Imagination, replacing the X20’s ARM Mali-T880 MP4 (see MPR 11/24/14, “7 New GPUs in PowerVR Series7”). According to the company’s measurements, the new GPU delivers 40fps on the GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen test. This performance is similar to that of the PowerVR GT7600 MP6 GPU in Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus (which uses the A9 processor) and more than 2x the performance of Qualcomm’s latest midrange Snapdragon 653.

The 10nm process enables the X30’s MP4 GPU to run at up to 800MHz, making up most of the shader-core deficit compared with the A9, which runs the GPU at 600MHz. Nevertheless, that performance falls considerably short relative to the newer Apple A10 processor, which integrates the same MP6 GPU in a TSMC 16nm process. The A10 hits 49fps on the GFXBench test (see MPR 11/7/16, “Apple Turbocharges PowerVR GPU”). Despite the shift to a more performance-efficient PowerVR GPU, MediaTek stuck with an MP4 design in the Helio X30, continuing its strategy of delivering slightly lower graphics performance than the industry leaders. In return, it saves die area, cost, and power.

Faster LTE, but Off-Chip Connectivity

The X30 integrates a Category 10 LTE baseband that enables three-carrier aggregation (3xCA) on the downlink (DL). When using 20MHz channels, the maximum receive data rate is 450Mbps—a 50% increase compared with the X20’s Category 6 modem with two-carrier aggregation (2xCA). For the uplink, however, the designers implemented a Category 13 design. Dual-carrier aggregation and QAM-64 boost the uplink (UL) data rate to a 150Mbps maximum, tripling the single-carrier speed of the X20.

MediaTek connects the processor’s digital baseband to its MT6179 RF transceiver. The modem offers considerable improvements for mainstream phones, and the UL speed matches Qualcomm’s best; DL performance, however, lags that of flagship devices that already support Category 12 (650Mbps DL). The Category 16 (1Gbps DL) design in the Snapdragon 835 will also be available by the time the X30 comes to market.

The X30’s RF/baseband combination implements MediaTek’s world modem, which supports HSPA+, TD-SCDMA, EDGE, and CDMA2000. In the U.S., wireless carriers are planning to shut down their CDMA networks in the next two to three years, but the company gained certification with Sprint and Verizon, enabling it to sell phones for use on those networks. The CDMA modem also works with China Telecom and is suitable for markets such as India that are still developing their LTE networks. In addition, the design implements the emerging LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U) and LTE-WLAN (LWA) standards.

The Helio X30 omits on-chip baseband circuits for Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi connectivity. Instead, the X30 smartphone platform uses the MT6632 combo chip, which supports Bluetooth 5.0, GPS/Glonass/Beidou location, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO, and FM radio functions.

For Near Field Communication (NFC), customers can optionally employ MediaTek’s MT6605. That chip allows a phone to simultaneously employ up to three secure elements, such as a dual SIM plus one MicroSD card. It also incorporates the company’s “Beam Plus” technology, which handles NFC-to-Wi-Fi handover for functions such as user authentication.

Tensilica’s Vision Powers Smarter Cameras

The Helio X30 follows the industry trend of dual rear-facing cameras in high-end smartphones (see MPR 4/4/16, “Smartphones Double Up on Cameras”). Whereas the X20 supports two 13Mpixel cameras, the X30 increases that capability to dual 16Mpixel cameras. Alternatively, the dual 14-bit image signal processors (ISPs) can work in tandem on a single image with up to 28Mpixel resolution.

The chip can encode and decode 30fps video at 4K resolution. MediaTek’s ISP can also record 240fps video at 720p resolution for 8x slow-motion playback. In the X30, the ISP gets a boost from Cadence’s Tensilica Vision P5 VPU (vision processing unit), which offloads the CPUs and GPUs to run MediaTek’s Imagiq computational-photography system (see MPR 10/12/15, “Cadence P5 Boosts Embedded Vision”). Imagiq handles both still and video photography, including electronic image stabilization, lens-distortion compensation, multiframe high dynamic range (HDR), optical zoom, temporal-noise reduction, and other such features. The dual-camera functions enable stereoscopic-3D photography and depth-of-field adjustments.

The Vision P5 VPU also works in parallel with the CPU and GPU for heterogeneous computing. The cores can share up to 8GB of LPDDR4X-1866 DRAM, doubling the memory capacity relative to the Helio X20. MediaTek supports the X30 with a deep-learning SDK that’s compatible with the Caffe framework and Google’s open-source TensorFlow software for machine learning.

Trampling on Snapdragon’s Turf

MediaTek’s new Helio X30 sports a number of enhancements compared with the first-generation deca-core design and will strengthen the company’s share of the $200–$300 “super-mid” segment. For that market, Helio offers strong competition to Qualcomm’s latest midrange Snapdragon 600-series part, as Table 1 shows. According to our CPU-performance metric, the X30 holds a substantial 43% advantage in single-thread performance compared with Snapdragon’s Cortex-A72s, mostly by virtue of the higher clock frequency that the 10nm technology allows. The new design also delivers a roughly 20% boost in single-thread performance relative to the 20nm Helio X20.

Table 1. Comparison of super-mid smartphone processors. The Helio X30 strengthens MediaTek’s position in this segment by offering superior performance on most specifications relative to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-series. *Single-thread/multithread relative to 1.0GHz Cortex-A9 across several mobile benchmarks; †GFXBench 3.0 (Manhattan) 1080p Offscreen. (Source: vendors)

For multithread performance, however, the comparisons are much closer. The Snapdragon 653’s quad Cortex-A72s make up much of the difference relative to Helio’s deca-core configuration. When all CPUs are running at their maximum clock frequencies, our model predicts MediaTek has a 10% advantage over the X20 but only a 3% advantage over the midrange Snapdragon. Such scenarios rarely occur in real applications, however; for more-typical situations, the X30’s midrange Cortex-A53s beat Snapdragon’s little quad by more than 20%. Helio’s tiny A35s give it an additional option for conserving power, thereby extending battery life.

The X30 has other advantages over the Snapdragon 653. Its quad-core PowerVR GPU delivers twice the performance of Qualcomm’s Adreno 510, which uses a relatively small configuration. The Helio chip supports the latest LPDDR4X memory standard, which reduces power, and adds UFS support for flash memory. Additional power savings come from the 10nm FinFET technology, whereas the 653 uses three-year-old 28nm HPM. The X30’s LTE modem aggregates a third carrier for higher data rates. One downside is the Helio chip’s need for an external Wi-Fi combo, whereas the Snapdragon processor saves power and cost by integrating key connectivity functions.

The X30 looks good against the Snapdragon 653, but it doesn’t challenge the Snapdragon 800-series or Samsung Exynos in flagship phones. The new Snapdragon 835, for example, features four Cortex-A73 cores at 2.45GHz. This configuration yields essen­tially the same per-CPU perfor­mance as the X30, but with twice as many big cores, its benchmark scores will be better. Its Adreno 540 GPU will easily exceed the Series 7XT GPU in performance, and its LTE modem is rated at more than twice the downlink speed of the X30’s. Like the X30, the 835 uses 10nm Fin­FET technology for high performance and low power.

Premium Features at Mainstream Prices

Although it lags leading-edge designs in some respects, MediaTek’s X30 smartly integrates an attractive set of premium features that will enable OEMs to compete with much more expensive handsets. The chip has top-rate CPU performance and should offer excellent battery life. The dual-camera system augmented by the Vision P5 VPU delivers flagship photographic capabilities that match the best the Snapdragon 835 can deliver. These capabilities are a big selling point for the selfie and Instagram generation (see MPR 1/9/17, “Snapdragon 835 First to 10nm”).

The Helio X30’s other leading-edge features include 4K video recording and playback, albeit without the ability some premium phones offer to natively display such content. The device handles the latest LPDDR4X DRAM as well as state-of-the-art UFS 2.1 flash memory (see MPR 5/16/16, “Smartphones Shift to Universal Flash”). It also integrates a Cortex-M4 sensor hub, similar to the top smartphone processors.

Compared with flagship processors, the X30 falls short in overall CPU throughput, LTE downlink speed and GPU performance. Relative to more mainstream competitors, however, the new LTE modem with three-carrier aggregation will deliver much higher downlink speeds on networks that support it, and the uplink performance will be appealing for user-generated video and similar applications. Although X30’s GPU performance is similar to that of a two-year-old iPhone, it is still a significant gain for the mainstream price tier.

MediaTek’s new top-end processor won’t set benchmark records, but vendors aiming for those prizes must employ much more expensive custom CPUs along with area- and power-hungry graphics engines. The Helio X30 delivers a more balanced and cost-conscious mix of features that will appeal to consumers looking for a budget-friendly alternative to the latest Apple and Samsung flagship models.

Price and Availability

MediaTek does not disclose pricing for its smartphone processors, but we estimate the Helio X30 will sell for $20–$25 in high volumes. The chip is in production now; we expect the first phones to hit the market in 2Q17. For more information, access www.mediatek.com/products/smartphones/mediatek-helio-x30

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