Qualcomm and Nvidia get most of the headlines in the mobile chip business, but two Chinese vendors are cornering the market for processors used in low-cost tablets, and in 2014 they might find their way into a product near you.
Samsung Electronics and Apple design their own chips. Most other well known mobile devices, like Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus series, use chips from Nvidia and Qualcomm. But less well-known is the booming market for cheap tablets that's being fuelled by Chinese chip makers Rockchip and Allwinner.
If you own a sub-$200 tablet then you might already be using one of their chips. These so-called "white box" tablets, labeled with brands such as PronoTec, KingPad and Dragon Touch, are meeting the huge worldwide demand from consumers who are unwilling or unable to pay for a top-end product.
The demand is significant. Allwinner and Rockchip will each sell 50 million tablet processors this year, according to research firm Canalys, making them the joint second-largest tablet chip suppliers in the world behind Apple, which will sell a projected 70 million iPads in the same time frame.
Many of those low-cost tablets have been sold in China, Latin America and other emerging markets. But the improving quality of Chinese components means the products could start to attract more buyers in the west, and big brands are taking a closer look.
Hewlett-Packard this year released the HP Slate 7, an Android tablet equipped with a Rockchip processor that sells in the U.S. for US$139. Rockchip has also sold processors used in the Excite and MediaPad tablets from Toshiba and Huawei.
HP has also used chips from Allwinner to power two Android tablets that it sells in China, and Allwinner is trying to win business with other big brands.
Although Rockchip and Allwinner are based in China, about 80 percent of their chips end up in tablets sold overseas, including some in North America. That's according to ARM, the U.K. chip design company that wins wherever the chips are made. ARM licenses the chip designs used by many Chinese and U.S. chip makers, with the exception of Intel.
No one expects Qualcomm and Nvidia to lose their position in the mainstream tablet market any time soon, and Apple and Samsung will likely continue using their own processors. But Chinese vendors are well positioned to further capitalize on the growing demand for tablets priced under $200.
Allwinner, based in Zhuhai, released its first tablet processor in 2011. It was a single core chip that helped trigger the market for low-cost Android tablets, according to Ben El-Baz, Allwinner's marketing director. The performance of the chip lagged behind those of its rivals, he admitted, but Allwinner has sharpened its edge with new dual-core and quad-core parts.
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