A challenger emerges for Qualcomm: Mediatek

The company has a sizeable presence in China but may be ready to break out worldwide.

Without much fanfare, Taiwan's Mediatek has gained some market share to become Qualcomm's nearest competitor, and it has some very ambitious growth plans for 2015 that includes challenging Qualcomm on its home turf, the U.S.

Mediatek provides system-on-chip solutions for wireless communications, HDTV, DVD and Blu-ray and was ranked as the fourth largest IC designer in the world in 2013 by IC Insights. Impressive for a company founded in 1997.

The company makes both baseband chips used for the cellular call as well as an ARM-based SOC processor, similar to Qualcomm's product offerings. Mediatek uses a model it described to the New York Times as a "turnkey solution," where it provides instructions to an OEM/ODM on how to build a phone and the software architecture to run it and offers dedicated consultants to advise phone makers through the production process.

This makes Mediatek popular with small and medium-sized firms in China, along with its cheap prices. Qualcomm is more popular at the high-end of the market among companies who don't need hand-holding.

Up to now, Mediatek has pretty much been a Chinese market story, but that is changing. The Chinese news site MyDrivers says the company intends to take on Qualcomm starting this year and is working to make its products compatible with Verizon and AT&T's networks.

Also a leaked slide on the Chinese social media site Weibo shows it has some high-performance parts in store that would definitely be capable of competing with Qualcomm. Mediatek's 2015 roadmap of chipsets run the range of high-end LTE to 3G, which is still the only option in many places around the world. Its current high end processor, release in just the past few months, is the MT6795. It is a 64-bit octa-core part running at 2.2Ghz on each core and based on ARM's Cortex-A53 64-bit architecture.

The next chip to come will be the MT6753 chipset, an octa-core part clocked at 1.5GHz and is based on the 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 architecture. The chipset will be manufactured on a 28nm process and include 4G LTE connectivity with 6 mode CDMA network support. This will be aimed at the mainstream 4G market.

For entry-level 4G, Mediatek has the MT6735 and MT6735M chipsets. Both are based on the ARM Cortex-A53 architecture but will be quad-core chips instead. The MT6735 will be clocked at 1.5GHz while the MT6735M runs at 1.0Ghz. The M part will also support camera resolutions of 8 megapixels, while the three higher end chips support 13 megapixel cameras.

For the 3G market, Mediatek will launch the MT6580 and MT6570. Both of these chipsets will be based on the Cortex-A7 architecture and will be clocked at 1.3GHz. The MT6580 is a quad-core part and the MT6570 will be a dual-core part.

Where it gets real interesting is the latter half of the year. Mediatek plans to launch the MT67XX processor, an 8-core processor with support for LTE Cat 6 and built on a 20nm manufacturing process. The other parts are all 28nm, so in theory, the 20nm part should run cooler and at lower power.

The support for Cat 6, a.k.a. LTE Advanced, is another sign the company is looking to expand globally because LTE is only now rolling out in China and there is very little if any LTE Advanced. The country is pretty far behind the rest of the developed world in LTE rollout, so if Mediatek wants to get these chips into phones, it has to sell them globally.

Cat 6 devices connect to two spectrum bands at once, effectively doubling download speeds. Regular LTE has a theoretical max download speed of 150Mbps, so Cat 6 should give you 300Mbps. Again, in theory. It's rolling out worldwide and there are only a few phones that support it.

It's good to see Qualcomm get a little competition. No sector should be a one-horse race. Now it remains to be seen what kinds of wins Mediatek can rack up.

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