The Technology That May Drive The Next Generation of Phones and Mobile Devices
CES is never really a phone show—the upcoming Mobile World Congress, which takes place in a few weeks, usually features more mobile products—but this year’s CES did see the introduction of a number of interesting mid-tier phones, and more importantly, some new technology that may well find its way into phones later on this year.
The most interesting new phone was probably the Asus Zenfone AR, one of the first phones able to run both Google’s Daydream VR and Tango augmented reality systems. It’s an interesting concept, and I’m curious to see the quantity and quality of AR apps that will be ready when the phone ships in the second quarter. Asus also announced the Zenfone 3 Zoom, which adds a dual-camera setup to the already quite interesting Zenfone 3, which I tried at the end of last year.
I was also very interested in the U.S. version of Huawei’s high-end Mate 9, which is most notable for including Amazon’s Alexa service preinstalled. The Mate 9 has a 5.9-inch display, runs the Kirin 960 processor, and Android 7.0 Nougat. Another large phone is the LG Stylus 3, a mid-range device that stands out for having a stylus (which is increasingly rare in the U.S. market following the removal of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7).
When it comes to phones at this year’s CES, much of the story was about value. The show saw the launch of LG’s K series (above) and Samsung’s A series—both reasonable lines of mid-range phones that aren’t special but look to be good values. I would say the same about the Huawei Honor 6X, which shows that you can have a dual-camera phone for just $249.
Still, I was more interested in what some of the technologies I saw could mean for future phones.
The Move to 10nm Chips
One of the big trends for this year will be the likelihood that higher-end phones will use chips produced on 10nm processes, which should allow for more performance and/or better battery life.
Keith Kressin, SVP of Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies, demonstrated what may be the first such chip to ship, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, which is manufactured using Samsung’s 10nm process.
Kressin said this chip will be 35 percent smaller than the existing 14nm Snapdragon 820/821, yet will offer 35 percent lower power or 2.5 hours more battery power. Quick Charge 4.0 will allow a five-minute charge to give a phone five hours of talk time, Kressin said. Adreno 520 graphics should enable 25 percent faster graphics, which Qualcomm said should allow for better VR/AR applications. The chip will also have improved security and machine learning features, as well as an X16 “gigabit class” modem along with support for such new standards as 802.11ac and ad. This should be in phones in the first half of this year. I expect we’ll hear more at Mobile World Congress.
Samsung is also likely to have a version of its own Exynos processor on the 10nm processor (widely rumored to be the 8895) at about the same time. Meanwhile, the other leading-edge foundry, TSMC, has also promised 10nm processors for later this year. It seems likely that we will see Apple and MediaTek processors using this process, though neither company has confirmed this.
The third major foundry, GlobalFoundries, is taking a different tact. It is now ramping up its 14nm process, as well as an alternative known as fully depleted silicon-on-insulator, which it calls FDX. Alain Mutricy, senior vice president for product management, says its 22nm FDX process delivers similar performance to 14nm FinFETs at the cost of 28nm planar. GlobalFoundries believes its 12nm FDX process, which is due in 2019, will match the 10nm processes in performance but at a much lower cost, as it will require fewer masks. High-end processors will still require FinFETs for maximum performance, but Mutricy says chips for mid-range and low-end phones, as well as other Internet of Things devices, are good candidates for FDX. GlobalFoundries plans to skip 10nm, which it says won’t be cost-effective with existing lithography tools, and skip directly to 7nm FinFETs with a process that will be compatible with new EUV lithography tools when they are ready for volume production.
TSMC is also rushing to get 7nm ready, and recently revealed it will use a similar strategy, offering a second version of 7nm with EUV lithography. Samsung has opted to wait for EUV before shifting to 7nm.
Intel showed off a running 2-in-1 design with its 10nm Cannon Lake chips, though these are designed for laptops and 2-in-1s, not phones. (Most observers think that Intel’s 10nm process will have finer details than the 10nm process from Samsung or TSMC, though it’s clear that 10nm is now more of a name than a measurement of any particular dimension.) Intel continued to repeat its mantra that Moore’s Law is alive and well, with CEO Brian Krzanich saying he was sure it would be going long after he retires.
Thinking about processors that are yet to come, one thing that has become increasingly clear is that security will be a big concern. ARM, which makes the IP behind the processor cores in virtually all phones, talked about further work on its TrustZone technology, and work on a “crypto cell” key store and cryptography engine. In addition, ARM is working on a suite of cloud services enabled by its processors designed to provide provisioning, identity management, and authentication, particularly for IoT devices.
ARM also talked about just how far processors have come in the past few years, pointing out that they now support better cameras and more sensor input, and not just fast CPU and GPU performance. ARM executives said they expect similar levels of improvement over the next couple of years.
5G on the horizon
Of course, processors aren’t the only mobile technology that is changing. 5G was also at the show, with Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf promoting the concept of “the 5G future,” at one of the keynotes. “5G isn’t an incremental improvement in connectivity, or even just a new generation of mobile,” Mollenkopf said, “5G will be a new kind of network, supporting a vast diversity of devices with unprecedented scale, speed, and complexity.” Qualcomm, Ericsson, and AT&T announced plans to conduct testing and over-the-air field trials based on the expected 5G New Radio specifications, and also pushed millimeter Wave tests.
Meanwhile, at the show, Intel announced what it called the world’s first global 5G modem supporting both sub-6Hz bands and mmWave spectrum. The company hopes this modem, which is due to be sampling in the second half of the year, will be used in many of the 5G trials that are now ongoing. I’m sure we’ll learn more about other trial processors at MWC.
Batteries, Scanners, and Displays
There were other technologies I found quite interesting at the show.
Panasonic showed off its flexible lithium-ion, which it says it hopes to have ready for production in 2018. This is still a lithium-ion battery, but it has a very different design compared to conventional batteries, with more of a flat rectangular shape for the battery cells versus the more common cylindrical shape. The battery, which is 0.45 mm thick, is bendable enough to fit around a soda can. At the show, the company showed three different versions, ranging from 17.5 to 60 mAh—not enough for a phone, but certainly enough for some kinds of IoT devices.
I was also very interested in seeing Synaptics’s demonstration of how it could now place an optical fingerprint sensor underneath a standard cover glass on a phone, thus enabling a fingerprint sensor on the front without the need for a physical button. At first, this feature would likely be deployed in a fixed location on the screen, but over time it could be applied anywhere on the screen. One can imagine how this could change the design of smartphones, most of which now either have a fingerprint scanner in a button below the screen or on the back of the phone.
I didn’t really see many new display technologies for phones at the show—the phones mostly used existing LCD or AMOLED screens—but I did see a lot of people who are trying to come up with better displays for VR headsets. Resolution is a big deal here because every VR system I’ve tried to date suffers from the “screen-door effect” at the short distance you wear VR or AR glasses. A “retina” display would offer a much higher resolution than anything you’d need on your phone. While there were a couple of different solutions in prototype headsets, the most advanced display I saw came from Kopin, which showed a 1-inch OLED panel with a 2048 by 2048 resolution and a 120 Hz frame rate. That’s probably overkill for phone resolution, but I can imagine it could be used in some very nice companion VR glasses.
Of course, I saw many wireless charging solutions and was particularly intrigued by the concept of truly wireless solutions, as I discussed in yesterday’s post.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see all of these advances in any one device this year, but taken together, we should see a variety of different mobile devices with some quite new features later in the year. It should be interesting.