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Intel invests $1.5B in Chinese SoC partnership

Sep 26, 2014 — by Eric Brown — 748 views

[Updated Sep 28] — Intel is investing $1.5 billion in China’s Tsinghua Unigroup, whose fabless mobile chip design centers will co-develop IA-based SoCs for mobile phones in 2015.

Intel Corp. will invest RMB $9 billion, or about $1.47 billion, in Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd., a subsidiary of Tsinghua Holdings Co., Ltd., a group associated with the Tsinghua University in Beijing. Tsinghua Holdings is in turn owned by the Chinese government.

The partnership calls for expanding “the product offerings and adoption for Intel-based mobile devices in China and worldwide by jointly developing Intel Architecture and communications-based solutions for mobile phones,” says Intel. The deal also gives Intel a 20 percent stake in a Tsinghua holding company that jointly owns two Chinese fabless, mobile chip designers: Spreadtrum Communications and RDA Microelectronics. Spreadtrum and Intel will jointly create and sell a family of Intel Architecture-based system-on-chips sold by both companies starting the second half of 2015, says Intel.

Intex Cloud FX

Spreadtrum made news in February, when it joined Mozilla in announcing plans to release a chipset that would enable $25 Firefox OS smartphones. In August, Indian manufacturers Intex and Spice each announced Firefox OS phones based on the Spreadtrum chipset costing $33 (Intex Cloud FX) and $38 (Spice Fire One Mi-FX 1).

The Spreadtrum chipset integrates a single-core Cortex-A5 processor and a 2G baseband processor. A version with a 3G chipset is also in the works.

Spreadtrum’s main business is designing basebands and RF transceivers, but more recently it has entered the SoC market with several Android-focused ARM-based models including a SC883XG SoC aimed at tablets. The 28nm-fabricated SC883XGSoC combines four 1.4GHz Cortex-A7 cores with an ARM Mali 400 MP GPU, a Spreadtrum WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS/FM connectivity chip, and multiple 3G baseband options with dual SIM support. Spreadtrum also offers its Mocor Platform — a customizable turnkey systems software platform for mobile device development.

Spreadtrum’s Mocor Platform

No specific venture was announced between Intel and RDA Electronics. RDA sells a variety of connectivity, cellular baseband, and broadcast TV chips, but has yet to develop a full SoC of its own.

Rockchip partnership alive and well

The Tsinghua Unigroup deal is the second major partnership Intel has announced this year with a Chinese chipmaker. In May, Intel revealed plans to license Rockchip to make its own low-cost Atom-based SoCs. The arrangement calls for Rockchip to design its own SoCs in 2015 based on Intel’s upcoming, 14nm Sofia Atom SoC design. The deal involves a newly announced quad-core version of the integrated Sofia SoC design, due in 2015, aimed at entry–level tablets.

According to a Digitimes report this week, the Rockchip deal is alive and well, and is primarily aimed at helping Intel reduce the cost of building its Atom chips. “Through Rockchip’s ecosystem in China, Intel is hoping to start up a wafer OEM business and will gradually turn to focus on customized x86 chip products to make price-friendly and competitive products that are more suitable for emerging markets,” says Digitimes.

Intel is also looking to Rockchip’s software support and existing back-end component and channel relationships to help the company “start a new business model and will push new chip and solution design services,” says the report. Rockchip is widely used in mid-range mobile devices as well as open-spec SBCs. For example, the Radxa Rock, and various Ugoos mini-PCs are built around the quad-core, Cortex-A9 RK3188 SoC.

In other Rockchip news this week, CNX-Software published a leaked Rockchip roadmap showing new RK3126 and RK3128 SoCs that appear to be aimed at budget laptops. The 40nm SoCs integrate four Cortex-A7 cores with Mali GPUs, and are due to ship in October or November. Meanwhile a 28nm “MayBach” SoC tipped on the sheet is an octa-core model that integrates high-end, 64-bit ARMv8 Cortex-A53 cores. Other upcoming Cortex-A53 models include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 615, MediaTek’s MT6732 SoC, and Marvell’s PXA 1928.

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