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Smartphone Architecture – Exploring competitive strategies in an ocean of similarities

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Both Samsung and Apple are releasing their latest flagship smartphones over the next week and both are spearheading the global, leading-edge, smartphone device category. Both OEMs are using 20nm System-on-Chip (SoC) architectures in their leading devices as a feature differentiator. Interestingly, as EETimes highlights, "these companies used the new process node in different ways." Other smartphone OEMs, such as ZTE, are also releasing new devices this month with similarities in features, begging the question, what is it that consumers are seeking in smartphones?

Feature strategies – what's in demand?

What is it exactly that consumers desire in their smartphone or smart device, and can a single phone handle it all? The "phablets" are certainly here to stay, Samsung was the first to present these larger, 5"+ devices to the market and now Apple has, for the first time ever, released two rather different phones at the same time – obviously acknowledging the demand for bigger smartphones. But obviously, leading-edge isn't just about size – so what is the feature demand set?

There are a number of features and differentiation strategies out there, despite most smartphones looking curiously identical. Price is a definite first cut for consumers, and that provides an interesting perspective to then compare and contrast features and architectures to see what has become standard across pricing tiers and what is really "leading-edge."

Battery life is the bane of everyone's existence with mobile devices, regardless of what that device is. Longer battery life means that greater power efficiency and heat dissipation are critical for the design team, but the average consumer just wants to hear their device stay charged through at least a full day's use. So, again, we see that the core architecture is important. Samsung obviously targeted the issue of reducing power draw with their 20nm architecture, fronting that capability over other logic-based features it could have focused on.

The other kind of power, processing power, is where Apple pointed its 20nm architectural focus. While battery power is improved over previous models, Apple instead used the advantages of 20nm to increase CPU and GPU performance significantly. Why increase an already powerful core instead of taking the benefits in device battery life?

Power, speed & LTE

Size and speed do matter, all of the major OEMs highlight these capabilities. Quad-core and 64-bit technology are certainly becoming more the norm in the high-end sector. Along with these two major features is the demand for LTE, particularly. Balancing these three features/capabilities as well as battery life, really is the crux of the differentiation challenge. In some ways, this is where the issue of size comes in.

As mentioned, the "phablet" size (the 5"+ category) is a definite feature draw, but not for all consumers, particularly those who put sleek portability in a pocket at the top of the list. Besides the obvious enhanced resolution of large screens, they enable software multitasking, an attractive feature for most global users for whom their smartphone is their singular internet access device. So while screen and core may not seem to be intricately tied, they actually are, since the ability to multitask demands support from both hardware and software. Hence also the attention to both CPU and GPU processing power (and speed). Delivering the potential for a singular device that is going to satisfy more and more of what consumers do across devices is where OEMs are focusing design challenges.

Balancing the ends

More attention to pick up consumers in the mid- and lower-range pricing category is where the competitive landscape gets more crowded. OEMs in these spaces are providing many similar features to the leading-edge devices, such as extended battery life, 8-megapixel camera, high data storage, increased screen size with high-end resolution, and so forth, but at a fraction of the cost. So what's the difference other than cost? There are many, to be sure but the question still begs, is "good enough" out of previous generation components and devices still "good enough" for consumers?

The highest-end, cutting-edge, "power" users will demand and maximize what they'll get from the latest generation processors. The majority of users and consumers are certainly able to satisfy their connectivity and multitasking demands with a recent generation architecture which doesn't come with as hefty a price tag. The success of this compromise in still powerful architecture but at a lesser cost by not having to have leading-edge is seen in the rise in the marketplace of mid-tier focused companies like Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, and many others. The advantage for these new competitors is that what was once a significant change/difference in computing or device power across chip generations really isn't as noticeable to the average user as it once was.

The new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus certainly saw record pre-order sales last week, how the rest of the year and coming one will shake out for the changing competitive landscape is a bit of a wait-and-see game as we look to see what demand triggers will be for consumers globally. The upcoming Smith MarketWatch Quarterly (free subscription) will be exploring the leading-edge architectures in more detail to understand the competitive landscape more carefully.


Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Wednesday, 17 September 2014 15:27 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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