A report recently surfaced, courtesy of The Korea Economic Daily, in which it is said Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and LG are teaming up to jointly develop a mobile applications processor that will be built in the former's chip manufacturing plants.
Although there are virtually no technical details available of this chip (and frankly, I'd like to see additional independent sources verify that the project is indeed in the works), I believe it's worthwhile to think through what the first chip these two companies are working on might look like.
To that end, I'd like to offer up my thoughts on the matter.
The CPU choice: ARM or X86?
If Intel and LG are indeed collaborating on a smartphone chip, then perhaps the choice of CPU intellectual property is the most interesting.
Typical smartphone processors either implement processors designed by British semiconductor IP vendor ARM Holdings (NASDAQ:ARMH) or custom-designed processors that implement the ARM architecture.
Intel's own mobile processors, on the other hand, use Intel-designed processor cores running on the company's own x86 instruction set architecture. Generally speaking, Intel has done a good job of making sure that the majority of Android applications "just work" on x86-compatible processors as well as they do on ARM-compatible processors, though I would argue there is still work to be done there.
The problem with Intel's processors in mobile, though, is that the competition has generally produced faster/better processor cores than Intel has for the mobile market.
Intel has been very slow to iterate to new Atom processor cores and I suspect that in order to maintain a marked performance difference between its low-end Atom processors and its higher-end Core processors, Intel has been sort of "phoning in" (no pun intended) its Atom architectures.
To this end, I expect that the first Intel/LG chip, especially if it is aimed at flagship devices, will use off-the-shelf ARM cores rather than x86 cores. In particular, I'd expect an implementation of ARM's Cortex A72 in a big.LITTLE configuration with Cortex A53 cores.
Graphics, modem, and other goodies?
As far as graphics go, I'd expect an implementation of graphics IP from either ARM Holdings or Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH:IGNMF). It's probably too early to see the use of Intel-designed graphics technologies here (although I do believe Intel is aggressively working toward developing leadership mobile graphics IP), and again I doubt that if LG is working on its own graphics, it will be able to successfully compete with ARM's/Imagination's anytime soon.
The first LG NUCLUN is said to have used graphics IP from Imagination Technologies and, if the Intel/LG pair are gunning for leadership performance, using high-end Imagination IP makes a lot of sense.
As far as the modem goes, I suspect the reason that the main reason that LG would be interested in partnering with Intel at all is to be able to integrate an Intel modem into the system-on-chip. I expect that such a chip will include a derivative of Intel's XMM 7460 modem, which is expected to arrive in the market in stand-alone form sometime in late 2016.
Finally, as far as the "other stuff" in the applications processor goes, such as the memory controller, Image Signal Processor, sensor hub, and other key components, I suspect that these will be developed by Intel rather than by LG as Intel seems to have more experience with these technologies than LG does.
What's the bottom line, then?
If Intel and LG really are working on a chip together, then I suspect that the first generation will be a fairly conservative integration of preexisting intellectual properties from both Intel's library as well as from third-party vendors.
Indeed, any chip that's targeted to be built on Intel's 14-nanometer process is likely to launch in the 2017 timeframe. Given that the collaboration is said to have begun this year, such a chip will necessarily involve basically integrating predeveloped intellectual property blocks as the development timelines for those individual pieces is quite long.
Should Intel and LG deepen this supposed collaboration over time, then both companies could work together to define the performance and feature characteristics of the individual building blocks of a system-on-chip, enabling an even more optimized and "custom" solution for LG's phones.
But I think such a chip, if it ever hits the marketplace, is many years out.