Qualcomm has completed its $1.4 billion acquisition of silicon design company Nuvia, a move that will lead to in-house Qualcomm CPU designs. The acquisition should allow Qualcomm to compete with Apple’s silicon division and focus on pushing bigger, better ARM chips into the laptop market. The deal was announced in January 2021.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Nuvia; the company was only founded in 2019 and has never made a product. Nuvia was focused on building server chips, but Qualcomm seems particularly interested in its technical heritage here, as the company was founded by three senior engineers from Apple’s silicon division. Nuvia’s CEO, Gerard Williams, previously Apple’s chief CPU architect for nearly a decade, is now Qualcomm’s SVP of Engineering.
Apple is famous in the process of dumping x86 Intel CPUs to roll out internal ARM architecture designs across the company’s laptop and desktop lines. Qualcomm wants to be here to sell chips to all the PC vendors that want to follow suit. Qualcomm’s press release immediately aimed its new design tool at the market that overthrows Apple, saying, “The first Qualcomm Snapdragon platforms with Qualcomm Technologies’ new internally designed CPUs are expected to be tested and designed in the second half of 2022. for high-performance ultraportable laptops.” The call that this acquisition will lead to “in-house designed CPUs” is a big deal, as Qualcomm currently only ships slightly modified, off-the-shelf ARM CPUs.
Apple’s ARM cores lead the industry because of the strength of the company’s CPU designs. Although Apple uses the ARM architecture, the company provides fully custom, internal CPU designs. Qualcomm’s SoC CPUs may be rebranded as “Qualcomm Kryo CPUs,” but they never differ much from ARM’s CPU designs for sale. The company’s best laptop chip, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2, uses ARM Cortex A76 CPU cores. The best smartphone chip, the Snapdragon 888, uses an ARM Cortex X1 core and Cortex A78 cores.
Stepping out of the shadow of ARM
Qualcomm president and CEO-elect Cristiano Amon says the acquisition will enable Qualcomm to “develop differentiated products with industry-leading CPU performance and power efficiency.” Currently, Qualcomm’s differentiation in the SoC market relies mainly on its modem technologies (hence the company’s frenzied promotion of 5G), its Adreno GPU division (which was ATI’s Imageon division before it was acquired in 2009) and its aggressive patent licensing system, which excludes competitors. Having a quality CPU design house would round out the business nicely.
ARM’s CPU designs are used in virtually every type of computing device on Earth: servers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, cars, IoT products, maybe a desktop or two, and a million other things. When you have to run that many records at once, ARM has to be more of a generalist than you might like when trying to compete with a laser-focused CPU design house like Apple.
One area of low-hanging fruit is the lower-power CPU cores regularly supplied in Qualcomm’s SoCs. High-end ARM chips usually have a “big.LITTLE” design, with a set of four more powerful, faster chips for foreground processing and a set of four slower cores with lower power for background processing and standby work . The higher power cores are updated every year, but the lower power cores are only updated about every four years. The Cortex A53 was the energy efficient solution for 2012-2016, and today the old Cortex A55 cores, from 2017, are still shipped in the Snapdragon 888 and 8cx Gen2. If you suddenly find yourself with more CPU design resources, it seems like a good start to put the power efficiency parts on a yearly cadence.
Even under the limitations of out-of-the-box ARM designs, laptop SoCs have been an afterthought in Qualcomm’s lineup. The company’s 2021 flagship Snapdragon 888 smartphone SoC is a cutting-edge design based on the latest ARM X1/A78 design and built on the latest 5nm manufacturing process, but Qualcomm’s laptop chips are two generations behind smartphone designs. The current Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 laptop SoC was only announced three months before Snapdragon 888, but the combination of an ARM Cortex A76 CPU and a 7nm manufacturing process makes it equivalent to the Snapdragon 855, a smartphone SoC launched in 2019. released.
The current ARM X1 design answered the demand for a larger, more powerful ARM chip. On the one hand, it’s a shame that Qualcomm didn’t push the chip into the laptop SoC in time, as it seems like the right direction for a laptop. On the other hand, the X1 is a great example of how uncompetitive Qualcomm would have been with a reliance on an ARM design roadmap. Again, ARM is a generalist, and “bigger and more powerful” for ARM is still not bigger and more powerful enough to compete with Apple. The 2021 Cortex X1-based Snapdragon 888 still can’t compete with the 2020 Apple A14 Bionic in CPU benchmarks, let alone the top-of-the-line Apple M1 chip. ARM just doesn’t produce designs with Apple’s laptop and desktop power goals.
While laptops are Qualcomm’s first target, the company doesn’t stop there. Qualcomm’s press release says the company “expects to integrate next-generation CPUs into a broad product portfolio, including powering flagship smartphones, laptops and digital cockpits, as well as advanced driver assistance systems, extended reality and infrastructure networking solutions.” That statement seems to specifically divest smartwatches and desktops, but it’s a start.