At one time in the not-too-distant past, cell phone chips were an unknown quantity or, at best, given short shrift by cell phone providers and manufacturers. Not anymore.
The Apple iPhone and HTC Evo 4G from Sprint are two of the hottest phones on the market. And both companies advertise the processor prominently. Is this a coincidence? Intel, the largest chipmaker in the world, doesn't think so.
"As late as a year ago, consumers didn't care about the processing power in their smartphones. Today almost every store is advertising the CPU speed that's inside the smartphone," Wilfred Martis, general manager of Intel's Retail Consumer Electronics business, said in an interview. "That's because the experience that users expect on these phones has gone through the roof, and the applications and content that are coming to those devices has gone through the roof."
While it's obvious that Intel has a stake in promoting its silicon in any computing device, so--now--do Apple and HTC. On HTC's Evo 4G specification page and Sprint's Evo 4G page, the 1GHz Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm gets, if not top billing, conspicuous mention along with the screen and Android operating system. And Apple is even more aggressive in making its A4 processor a marquee feature.
And this isn't just ad copy. These chips, technically referred to as application processors, are the brains of the smartphone and handle tasks such as high-definition 1080p video; 3D graphics; and image and audio processing. Apple cites the A4 chip as instrumental in performing "complex jobs such as multitasking, editing video, and placing FaceTime calls."
Qualcomm plays an even larger role in some phones, supplying both the application processor, such as its Snapdragon chip, and the mobile broadband function too, or so-called baseband chip.
Motorola has taken a different tack, choosing not to disclose the Texas Instruments application processor on its specification page. That hasn't stopped Verizon, however, from boasting about TI's OMAP chip in both the Motorola Droid X and Droid 2.
Will smartphones ever become billboards for the silicon inside, like today's sticker-laden PCs touting Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, or Nvidia silicon? Probably not. But it will be interesting to see if smartphone makers and service providers become more proactive in promoting chips as phones begin to rival PCs in processing power.