Qualcomm has wrapped up its $1.4 billion acquisition of silicon design firm 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 mainly interested in the engineering pedigree here, since the company was founded by three high-ranking engineers from Apple’s silicon division. Nuvia’s CEO, Gerard Williams, formerly Apple’s chief CPU architect for nearly a decade, is now Qualcomm’s SVP of engineering.
Apple is famously in the process of dumping x86 Intel CPUs in order to roll out in-house ARM architecture designs across the company’s entire 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 resource at the market Apple is upending, saying, “The first Qualcomm Snapdragon platforms to feature Qualcomm Technologies’ new internally designed CPUs are expected to sample in the second half of 2022 and will be designed for high-performance ultraportable laptops.” The call-out that this acquisition will lead to “internally designed CPUs” is a big deal, since currently, Qualcomm only ships lightly customized, off-the-shelf ARM CPUs.
Apple’s ARM cores are industry leading due to the strength of the company’s CPU designs. While Apple uses the ARM architecture, the company ships totally custom, in-house CPU designs. Qualcomm’s SoC CPUs might be rebranded as “Qualcomm Kryo CPUs,” but they never deviate much from ARM’s for-sale CPU designs. The company’s top laptop chip, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2, uses ARM Cortex A76 CPU cores. The top smartphone chip, the Snapdragon 888, uses an ARM Cortex X1 core and Cortex A78 cores.
Stepping out from ARM’s shadow
Qualcomm president and CEO-Elect Cristiano Amon says the acquisition will allow Qualcomm to develop “differentiated products with leading CPU performance and power efficiency.” Currently, Qualcomm’s differentiation in the SoC market mainly relies 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 scheme, which locks out competitors. Having a quality CPU design house would nicely round out the company.
ARM’s CPU designs are used in basically every type of computing device on earth: servers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, cars, IoT products, maybe a desktop or two, and a million other things. Having to spin this many plates at once means ARM has to be more of a generalist than you might prefer if you’re trying to compete with a laser-focused CPU design house like Apple.
One area of low-hanging fruit is the lower-power CPU cores that regularly ship in Qualcomm’s SoCs. High-end ARM chips usually have a “big.LITTLE” design, with a set of four higher-power, faster chips for foreground processing and a set of four lower-power, slower cores 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 low-power solution for 2012-2016, and today the ancient Cortex A55 cores, from 2017, are still shipping in the Snapdragon 888 and 8cx Gen2. If you suddenly find yourself with more CPU design resources, putting the power efficiency parts on a yearly cadence seems like a good place to start.
Even under the limitations of off-the-shelf ARM designs, laptop SoCs have been an afterthought in Qualcomm’s lineup. The company’s flagship 2021 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 the 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 released in 2019.
The current ARM X1 design answered demands for a bigger, higher-power ARM chip. On one hand, it’s a shame that Qualcomm didn’t push the chip into the laptop SoC in a timely manner, since it seems like the right direction for a laptop. On the other hand, the X1 is a good example of how uncompetitive Qualcomm would have been with a reliance on an ARM design roadmap. Again, ARM is a generalist, and “Bigger and higher-power” for ARM still isn’t bigger and higher-power 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 isn’t producing designs with Apple’s laptop and desktop power targets.
While laptops are the first target for Qualcomm, the company isn’t stopping there. Qualcomm’s press release says the company “expects to integrate next-generation CPUs across a wide portfolio of products, 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 snub smartwatches and desktops, but it’s a start.