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Nufront squares in on mobile apps processors

Posted: 08 Nov 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fabless? apps processor? HDMI? tablet? WCDMA?

Amid heavy competition from fabless chip firms in China, Nufront gets aggressive by venturing beyond PC chips to mobile apps processors and baseband chips.

Undoubtedly, the broad availability of popular, licensable IP cores like ARM (for apps processors) and CEVA (for baseband comms chips) has helped level the playing field for many Chinese fabless companies in recent years. Nufront is one of the beneficiaries.

Where Nufront differs from other up and comers, though, is that the company, founded in 2004, has already been around the block. Its eight years in the industry have cemented closer ties with the Chinese government agencies. With that comes government funding. Not everything has worked out in its favour, though, and the company has a few scars to show for it.

A case in point is China's mobile TV standard. Nufront, in the mid-2000's, dabbled with the nascent digital mobile TV market, throwing itself behind one of China's home-grown mobile TV standards, Terrestrial-Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting (T-MMB). However, just before the Beijing Olympics, China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) ended up supporting - and institutionalizing - a rival standard, China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting (CMMB).

Nufront is also known for its deep involvement in developing China's national wireless technology, called Enhanced Ultra-High Throughput (EUHT) WLAN. With government funding, Nufront has been working on the national standard for more than several years. While the world is yet to see EUHT commercialized, Rock Yang, vice president of marketing at Nufront, stressed that the project is still on, and its ultra-high throughput wireless technology - 1.2Gbit per second throughput - will be deployed in China's vertical market in 2013.

Nufront today has about 700 employees, with a team of 400 engineers. Two hundred are software engineers, while 150 are working on hardware systems, and 50 are specifically focused on chipsets, according to the company.

New frontier
Nufront is also known for its first PC chip based on a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU running at 2GHz designed for ultra-thin laptop, "all-in-one" desktop computers, netbooks and tablet computers. The company's all-in-one PC running on ARM got a lot of attention at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011.

But the company's latest focus is squarely on tablets and smartphones.

Nufront has been mass-producing NS115, the company's third-generation apps processor based on dual core ARM Cortex-A9 processor. Running up to 1.5GHz, the NS115 - manufactured by TSMC using its 40-nm process technology - is integrated with Mali400 multi-core 2D/3D graphic processor and is capable of 1080P video decoder and 720P video encoder.

image name

Acho tablet powered by Nufront apps processor

Nufront claims the NS115's low power consumption (about 400 mW running at 1.5GHz) as its biggest advantage, compared to competitors. Estimating that the global tablet market will expand to at least 40 million units this year, marketing VP Yang said that the company is betting on the NS115 to garner a sizeable share.

Of course, he is mindful of the tablet market possibly turning into a bloodbath - soon. Single-core ARM Cortex A8-based apps processors - priced at around $10 to $11 per unit by companies like Amlogic, RockChip, ViMicro and AllWinner - dominated the roughly 14 million-unit tablet market last year. In 2012, the adoption of dual-core A9 processors is picking up, said Yang, "although not in high volume yet."

The new dual-core apps processors come with more features and higher performance, but the price is about the same, he added. Meanwhile, the next big thing - quad-core apps processors - won't become mainstream until 2013, according to Yang. Nufront has plans to produce quad-cores at TSMC using a 28-nm process technology.

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