Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) may have so far resisted the temptation to join the quad-core race, choosing instead to focus on improving the performance of its current processors before increasing the number of cores. But, having introduced the faster Krait architecture in the dual-core Snapdragons earlier this year, the dominant mobile chipset maker is now ready to take on competitors with its first quad-core offering. The S4 Pro quad-core chipset will make its debut in LG’s Optimus G smartphone, which is slated for global launch later this year. 
While Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) and Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) already have quad-core chipsets of their own (based on ARM Cortex A9), what sets apart Qualcomm’s offering is not just the next generation Krait architecture (equivalent to ARM Cortex A15) but also the fact that it will be among the first quad-core chips to be compatible with LTE.
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With the S4 Pro chipset, we believe Qualcomm is finally making its tablet intentions clear. The quad-core race may be meaningless for smartphones in general, except as a differentiating factor for some high-end flagship products. But they make the most sense for the high performance environment of tablets and hybrid PCs such as the forthcoming Surface tablets. With iPads so far ruling the tablet roost, Qualcomm has concentrated its resources on improving the performance of smartphone chipsets. But, considering the nascent stage the tablet market is in currently, it is expected to grow in leaps and bounds over the coming years with the entry of a number of Windows and Android-based tablets. This is the opportunity that Qualcomm will be targeting with its high-performance S4 chipsets.
However, Qualcomm faces a big competitor in Nvidia which has made rapid strides in the tablet market with significant design wins at Acer, Asus, Samsung, Sony, LG, Motorola, Toshiba and others.  Nvidia positioned its standalone dual-core app processors, the Tegra 2, well to capture significant non-iPad tablet market share in 2011. And, more recently, it introduced a new reference platform for tablets, Kai, that will make it possible for manufacturers to launch low-cost $199 Android tablets using its first-to-the-market quad-core solution, the Tegra 3. Google has already launched its first Android-based Nexus 7 tablet using this technology.
The main challenge for Qualcomm here is to match Nvidia’s superior graphic abilities seeing as it cannot play its baseband card with tablets. Most of the non-iPad tablets launched in the market, especially the low-end ones, have done away with 3G/4G capabilities and are instead opting for Wi-Fi only. Even Microsoft has chosen to adopt this path with its Surface tablets. This sort of evens the tablet playing field since Qualcomm will have to compete solely on the technological superiority of its application and graphics processors. Where Qualcomm has developed its own architecture on top of the ARM instruction set to gain an upper hand in app processors, it has historically been a GPU laggard. With the new Adreno 320 GPU that is used in the quad-core S4 Pro, it may have finally caught up with the graphic capabilities of the Tegra 3 but Nvidia could leapfrog Qualcomm when it releases the next Tegra in 2013.
This is probably where Qualcomm’s Atheros acquisition made last year could come in handy. Qualcomm could use Atheros’ Wi-Fi technology to integrate its app processors in much the same way as it integrates baseband chipsets for smartphones. This would help it target the tablet/hybrid PC market better.
As for the high-end smartphones or superphones, as some call them, Qualcomm will be able to use the quad-core chipset to press its LTE advantage even more. For example, HTC chose to use Nvidia’s quad-core chipset for its One X launch in international markets while going with Qualcomm only for the U.S. launch. With a quad-core Snapdragon now available with LTE support, Qualcomm could wrest back such high-end wins in the future.Notes:
- LG launches Optimus G flagship smartphone, Engadget, September 17th, 2012 [↩]
- CY 2011 Tablet Apps Processor Market: Intel and Qualcomm Miss the Boat, Strategy Analytics, May 7th, 2012 [↩]