New processor could chip away at smartphone costs

Sandbridge Technologies develops a programmable chip for mobile phones that will allow manufacturers to pack in more functionality at a much lower price.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

New technology from a company called Sandbridge Technologies could help keep smartphone prices in check as carriers begin to move toward 4G wireless networks.

On Monday, Sandbridge, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., plans to announce that its new baseband processor for cell phones, called the SB3500, is now shipping to cell phone manufacturers throughout the world. This new processor, which has been in the works for several years, differs from other chips used in cell phones because it's completely software-based and reprogrammable.

What this means is that phone manufacturers will be able to pack multiple technologies and functions onto a single chip. And because it's software programmable, the phone makers themselves will be able to determine which technologies to support on the chip. This should help phone manufacturers reduce the number of chips needed in a phone, which will ultimately reduce hardware costs and technical complexity in the devices.

"Because we allow manufacturers to pack more functionality into a single chip, we can reduce the cost of those phones by about 15 percent," said Tanuj Raja, vice president of business development for Sandbridge.

This will become increasingly important as consumers expect more functionality in their wireless devices. Take Apple's iPhone 3G as an example. The phone supports 3G wireless connectivity, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Today all that functionality is supported on multiple chips. With the new Sandbridge processor, a company like Apple could program a single chip to handle all four functions.

But it isn't just the fact that multiple functions can be packed onto a single processor. Companies such as Qualcomm and Broadcom already do that. The real difference is that the Sandbridge processor is software programmable. This means that the cell phone maker decides which function to put on the chip. It also means that when new technologies like 4G wireless are introduced, cell phone makers can react quickly and get devices out the door much faster.

So what does all this really mean for consumers? Well, it could mean more sophisticated devices at lower prices. Each processor and piece of hardware that is added to a phone costs money and takes up valuable real estate within the phone. If manufacturers can reduce the number of chips used, they can reduce their costs. And hopefully, they'll be able to pass on those savings to consumers. Or at the very least, they'll be able to add more functionality without jacking up prices.

Today wireless operators are just starting to talk about new 4G wireless broadband services. Sprint Nextel is the only carrier in the U.S. to begin deployments using a technology called WiMax. Verizon Wireless and AT&T have each said they plan to use a technology called LTE to build their 4G networks, which are not likely to take shape until at least 2010. What's more, the Federal Communications Commission has just opened up unused broadcast TV spectrum known as "white spaces" that will likely be used for wireless broadband services. These slivers of frequencies are not contiguous across the U.S., which means that devices will likely have to switch among different types of connection technologies and carrier networks.

Sandbridge's programmable processor should make it easier for phone manufacturers to handle these challenges. They'll not only be able to support multiple connection technologies on fewer chips, but they'll be able to test and add new functions to their phones much more quickly than if they had to wait for a chipmaker to design these technologies into hardware.

"Because it's software based, we are announcing the first programmable chip that can support 4G wireless technology even before those standards are finalized," Raja said.

Sandbridge isn't the only company developing programmable chips. Other companies such as Texas Instruments and NXP Semiconductors have also tried to develop processors to handle this task. But these other companies have either been unable to produce a chip that can process fast enough or the chips consume too much power and aren't suitable for mobile devices, said John Glossner, co-founder and chief technology officer of Sandbridge.

"There are several companies trying to do something similar to what we've been able to achieve," Glossner said. "But it's not easy to do. These other solutions either quickly burn a lot of power or there is a lot of latency."