Better Battery Life Motivates Mobile Chipmakers

By all accounts, mobility is the name of the game in 2010. Smartphone shipments shot skyward last quarter and major handset makers, particularly LG and Samsung, are ramping up production this year. The same bullish sentiment is expanding into tablets in general and Apple’s iPad in particular.

But how do electronics makers plan to bring mobile gadgets to market that balance performance, feature-richness and long battery life that consumers expect? What about the environment? Recent stirrings from chipmakers offer some clues.

ARMed for Efficiency

How will Apple’s multimedia-devouring iPad manage to deliver 10 hours of battery life?  A lot of the credit goes to Apple own low-power A4 system-on-a-chip (SoC). The company is tight-lipped about what, exactly, makes its chip tick and precisely how much power it consumes, but it’s hard to deny its ARM-based heritage.  The best evidence so far? Besides Apple’s ARM license, the iPad is powered by a version of the iPhone OS, which gives it the ability to natively run iPhone apps — none of that Rosetta/Universal Binary business when Apple transitioned to Intel — and iPhones run on ARM processors sourced from Samsung.

This week, ARM CEO Warren East is bullish about tablets in general, describing the space (within the context of the iPad launch) as “an area of huge growth potential for us over the next three to five years.” Meanwhile, the company just laid out its processor roadmap, showing that ARM is gearing up for more powerful, feature-rich smartphones and other mobile devices that live and die by the number of hours they operate between charges.

Intel and Micron Shrink Flash Memory

Intel and Micron revealed that they have come up with a new 25-nanometer manufacturing process for NAND-based flash memory — an industry first. It’s an exciting development that promises to radically reduce the cost of the pricey data storage technology. According to Objective Analysis’ estimates, the new chips will cost $0.50 per gigabyte to manufacture vs. the $1.00 per gigabyte cost of current the 34-nanometer process. Where will the chips show up? Intel-branded SSDs are a given (expected to go on sale in fourth quarter this year), and as the chipmaker mentioned in its announcement, future media players and smartphones are sure to pack loads of the energy-efficient storage.

Samsung Tackles Notebook Memory

Samsung is shedding nanometers too, but in this case, it’s DRAM for notebooks going under the knife.  The company’s new 30-nanometer Green DRAM 2 gigabyte DDR3 modules consume 30 percent less power then the current 50-nanometer variety. It’s enough to cut overall power consumption of a typical notebook PC by 3 percent, which can add up to several additional minutes of battery life. More importantly, Samsung expects the memory to trickle down to netbooks and other mobile devices, where every watt counts and the energy savings may be more pronounced.

Taken altogether, these recent moves and revelations point to mobile devices that won’t ask consumers to sacrifice utility for battery life. And if 2010 shapes up to be as cutthroat as expected, particularly in the smartphone arena, then it will be devices with one or more chips from the aforementioned that are likely to be at an advantage.

The environmental benefits of these innovations add up, as well. Gartner predicts that by 2013 smartphones and web-enabled cell phones will surpass PCs — 1.82 billion vs. 1.78 billion worldwide — to become the most common way of accessing the Internet. IDC forecasts that Portable PCs, a category that includes netbooks, will drive most of the growth in the PC market during the same period. So, while the growth of personal IT is expected to rise, that use will largely come from mobile devices that consume vastly less power and use fewer materials than desktops. Thanks to low-power chips, the desktop PC you recycle today may be your last.

Question of the week

Which chipmaker is best poised to deliver gadgets with superior battery life?