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When Apple announced that its A7 chip would be based on the ARMv8 (64-bit) instruction set, the race was on. While Intel (NASDAQ: INTC ) quietly noted that all of its chips were 64-bit capable and ready to go, the rest of the ARM vendors seemed to be caught off guard. Now, interestingly enough, a recent Digitimes report made the bold claim that ARM vendors -- namely Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM ) , NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA ) , and Broadcom (UNKNOWN: BRCM.DL ) -- would be preparing 64-bit quad core handset solutions for the first half of 2014. Does this rumor pass the smell test?
Broadcom: very unlikely
Broadcom, in a bid to enter the LTE handset race, picked up the Renesas Mobile asset. What Broadcom got was a carrier-certified, LTE-capable integrated apps processor and system-on-chip. The apps processor that powers this solution -- slated to hit handsets during the "first part of 2014" -- will be a dual core Cortex A9, a 32-bit ARM core.
Interestingly, the company has already signaled that its next iteration of this product, slated for the second half of 2014, will be a quad core Cortex A7 -- another 32-bit core. While it's not inconceivable that Broadcom could rip out the Cortex A7 that it had planned for this part, and instead put in a quad core Cortex A53 (a 64-bit iteration of the A7), it's not as easy as it sounds. Broadcom is already late to the market and swapping out processors seems like a pretty big risk. At any rate, this would be a late 2014 deal (contrary to Digitimes' assertion of an early 2014 deal).
NVIDIA: also unlikely
The next candidate is NVIDIA. The company's intentions in the high-end apps processor space has been clear: it plans to introduce system-on-chip products with a custom 64-bit ARM core for the high end of the apps processor market at some point in 2015. Given that the company explicitly called this part out as being built on a FinFET process, it's unlikely that these parts will ship in any real volume until late 2015.
In the mainstream portion of the handset market, the company is set to release its very first highly integrated apps processor -- Tegra 4i. The company has signaled that handsets based on Tegra 4i would begin shipping in early 2014. Given that the Tegra 4i's design is complete, and given that it would likely take six months to replace the quad Cortex A9's with quad Cortex A53's, availability of a 64-bit handset part from NVIDIA also seems very unlikely in the first half of 2014.
Qualcomm is a "maybe"
The final major handset player mentioned in the Digitimes report is Qualcomm, a company that is very tight-lipped. This company rarely announces a product until it is sampling to its OEMs, which has often caught its major competitors (in particular, Intel) off guard. Who knew that the Snapdragon 805 would spoil Intel's Bay Trail and NVIDIA's Tegra 4 party?
Despite this, it seems unlikely that Qualcomm will move to 64-bit until 2015. Qualcomm designs its own processor cores, so a move to ARMv8 would require a new core. This will most likely come when the company transitions to the 20-nanometer node (which, according to the company's analyst day presentation, should be in 2015), which suggests that a launch in 2014 is highly unlikely.
However, the wildcard is the low end of the market. Qualcomm routinely uses off-the-shelf ARM cores for its very lowest-end chips, so it's not unreasonable to think that there's a possibility that Qualcomm could put out a quad Cortex A53 part during the first half of 2014. Again, this is probably unlikely, especially since it would embarrass the high-end Snapdragon parts from a marketing standpoint (but not on actual performance), but if Qualcomm does get a 64-bit part out in the first half of 2014, this would be the most likely way to go.
Foolish bottom line
It's interesting that many cite Apple's move to 64-bit as the major driver that scrambled the other guys, but really it's immaterial since nobody buys an iPhone because of the chip inside it, but instead simply because it's an iPhone. The risk is that Intel demonstrated a 64-bit version of Android running on its Bay Trail processor. If the x86 version of Android is 64-bit ready by the first half of 2014, Android vendors will have to take a hard look at Intel's tablet and smartphone products to have this marketing point in a very crowded Android market.
At any rate, the Digitimes rumor doesn't pass the smell test. It would be a surprise to see 64-bit chips available from these players in the first half of 2014.
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