MediaTek wants to put its new 10-core chip in $300 VR smartphones

MediaTek's new 10-core Helio X30 chip will be available for smartphones and phablets priced between $300 and $500

The smartphone world will be rocked with MediaTek's new 10-core Helio X30 chip, which will bring premium features like Google's DayDream virtual reality platform to Android handsets with prices starting at US$300.

The Helio X30 has the most cores of all smartphone chips, and that makes it blazing fast. With the chip, low-cost Android handsets will also get high-resolution cameras and screens, fast LTE, and high-end GPUs.

The goal with the X30 is to bring the power, performance, and features in pricey smartphones like Samsung's Galaxy S7 and Google's Pixel to more affordable handsets, said Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of sales at MediaTek.

Helio X30 is one of the few smartphone chips supporting Google's DayDream VR platform. DayDream was a feature originally reserved for high-end smartphones, but prices are tumbling with ZTE's recently released $400 Axon 7 handset.

Smartphones with Helio X30 will appear in the coming months, though MediaTek declined to name vendors using the chip. MediaTek chips are used in many smartphones sold in Asian countries, and the company is trying to break into North America, where carriers and device makers are backing market leader Qualcomm.

You'll end up paying top-dollar for smartphones with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835, which will dominate top Android smartphones. The Helio X30 chip is more of a low-cost alternative for handsets and phablets that have a premium feel but are in the $300 to $500 price range.

Besides smartphones, the Helio X30 could also be used in tablets or Chromebooks, Moynihan said. But the main focus is on smartphones, which is a growing market.

The new chip succeeds another 10-core chip, last year's Helio X20, and provides a big upgrade in LTE speed, graphics, CPU performance, and power efficiency. The Helio X30 is 35 percent faster and 50 percent more power-efficient than the X20. That means longer battery life and a faster smartphone.

The Helio X30 is made using the 10-nanometer process, which is also is used for Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835. The chips are competitive on processor technology, but the Helio X30 doesn't match up to Snapdragon 835 on LTE speeds and graphics. MediaTek had to make some tradeoffs so the chips are feasible for affordable handsets.

An integrated Cat 10 LTE modem in the Helio X30 has downlink speeds of up to 450Mbps (bits per second), while the Snapdragon 835 can reach download speeds of up to 1Gbps. The X30 has a PowerVR Series7XT GPU, which can handle 3D video required for DayDream. The Adreno GPU in the Snapdragon 835 has some of the latest graphics technologies.

The big question remains: Do you need a 10-core chip in a smartphone when quad-core configurations are considered sufficient That was a big question MediaTek faced with its first 10-core Helio X20 chip, which shipped last year. Analysts at the time said using the X20 in smartphones was like putting a jet engine in a car.

The 10 cores in Helio X30 make more sense now, especially with VR and other applications emerging. The chip has a unique tri-cluster design, with groups of CPUs providing differing levels of performance.

Two brawny Cortex-A73 CPU cores provide muscle for demanding applications, four Cortex-A53 mid-range cores handle regular phone applications, and four Cortex-A35 low-power cores take on mundane tasks like voice and streaming music.

MediaTek's CorePilot technology assigns the right tasks to the right cores, which helps preserve battery life on smartphones. The high-powered Cortex-A73 cores will turn on only for demanding applications like multimedia.

The CPU technologies are certainly impressive as the core groupings can run smartphones themselves. Many smartphones can run on four Cortex-A53 cores or Cortex-A35 alone.

It is good to have the two superfast CPU cores as insurance to run demanding applications, Moynihan said.

MediaTek's also looking to move up the ladder into more premium smartphones with Helio X30. The brand MTK -- which is a common prefix attached to MediaTek chips -- conjures up thoughts of low-end to mid-range device, so the company has work to do.

"We've been working hard to move the needle. We've been making progress," Moynihan said. "It's still fair to acknowledge we still have work to do on the highest tier."

The company's smartphone chip market share has been growing slowly, Moynihan said, with around a third of all mobile devices.

The Helio X30 is being announced at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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