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Xiaomi selects Leadcore to make smartphone processor

Posted: 19 May 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smartphone  processor  patent 

Under the radar

Among Chinese fabless chip companies, Leadcore has flown under the radar, with none of the star power or the market success Spreadtrum has enjoyed—until now. Last month, Xiaomi rolled out its newest smartphone, Xiaomi Redmi 2A, coinciding with the company's fifth anniversary. Priced at $100, it's even less expensive than Redmi 2.

Both Redmi 2 and 2A are 4G smartphones, but the former is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 SoC and Adreno 306 GPU. The Snapdragon 410 is a quadcore processor based on ARM's cortex A53 architecture and supports 64bits applications.

The new Redmi 2A is Qualcomm-free. It comes with Leadcore's LC1860 built around up to 2GHz hexa-core Cortex-A7 architecture with a Mali T628 GPU. The SoC, fabricated by using a 28nm process at TSMC, is designed to support up to 2K LTE displays. It offers 1080p video capture at 60fps and built-in 4G LTE, 3G and GSM support.


Marshal Cheng

The LC1860 wasn't designed for the "high premium segment" of the smartphone market, said Cheng. It goes after the middle to mass markets—where Xiaomi's Redmi 2A is also positioned—in direct competition with MediaTek, Spreadtrum and Qualcomm.

Looking back, Cheng admitted the difficulty of transitioning from a software company serving the telecom group giant to becoming a fabless chip company. "It was bumpy," he said.

Leadcore's initial SoC was designed for 3G feature phones and made barely a dent in the mobile market. "We had to learn everything from scratch"—dealing with IP houses like ARM, and using ZSP, originally designed by LSI and later its IP acquired by VeriSilicon, and designing a whole chip, he explained.

Software-defined radio

The seed for the company's big break was planted when Leadcore's design team made a "bold decision" in 2012 to go for software-defined radio (SDR) based on CEVA's DSP. The switch to the enhanced architecture was deemed necessary when Leadcore was moving its product family to 4G.

Cheng believes that this paid off in getting Xiaomi's attention—not just using LC1860 as a single-shot design win for Redmi 2A but for future collaborations with Xiaomi.

While LC1860 won't remain exclusive to Xiaomi (Cheng said, "there will be other smartphones using LC1860 on the market later"), the idea is for Leadcore to work with Xiaomi for next-gen product definitions.

The good news is that the platform is based on software-defined radio. "We can keep the same platform to run new mainstream standards like LTE-A and others," said Cheng. The platform can also be used for non-standard modems, he said. The implication is that the platform will work for LTE-M, including Cat 0, which has the potential to revolutionise wireless IoT. Asked about the potential of using the same platform for M2M applications, Cheng was cagey. "I can't say," he said.

If China decides to design its own 5G spec for certain applications, Xiaomi's newly established connection with Leadcore and its access to "carrier-grade" wireless communication technologies possessed by Datang Telecom should become very important, said a Chinese industry observer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

- Junko Yoshida
  EE Times U.S.

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