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Taiwan’s MediaTek Enters the Quad-Core Chip Race

Taiwan’s MediaTek, a chipmaker best known for powering low-end Android devices, says it is nearly ready with its first quad-core mobile processor.

The chip, known as the MT6589, also includes graphics and wireless communications functions and is aimed at the mid tier and higher ends of the smartphone and tablet markets. It is now being designed into products that will ship starting in the first quarter of next year, MediaTek said.

“Up to this point, the story for Mediatek has been about transition from feature phones into smartphones,” MediaTek’s Finbarr Moynihan said in an interview. Moynihan said with the arrival of this chip, MediaTek can now compete in more than just the entry level of the market.

Mediatek is far from alone in having a quad-core chip. Nvidia has been selling its quad-core Tegra 3 for a while now, while Qualcomm also has a quad-core mobile chip.

What sets Mediatek apart, Moynihan said, is that its quad-core chip also bundles the graphics and modem functions all in a single package that can enable lower-cost device than its rivals.

Mediatek is in the midst of trying to establish itself as a global player in the smartphone market. The company shipped 550 million phone processors in 2011, but all but 10 million of those were for lower-end feature phones.

It will ship somewhere in the same ballpark of phone processors this year, but somewhere north of 100 million of those will be for smartphones. Thus far, most of its smartphone processors have gone into Chinese Android devices, though it has also made inroads in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Several things are fueling MediaTek’s growth. First and foremost is the explosion of Android itself, both the Google-blessed version and the modified forms typically used by Chinese makers.

The company’s low-cost chips are a key as well, but Moynihan says it isn’t all about price. MediaTek says its quad-core approach, while perhaps not delivering the most raw performance, offers power advantages that mean its chips can operate using all four cores for longer.

Showing a video of rival processors heating up under intense multicore use, Moynihan says its quad-core chip can stay cool thanks to its low-power ARM A7 processors.

But MediaTek will also find increasing competition as it tries to move up into the mainstream smartphone market. Qualcomm is a huge player there, with Broadcom and Intel also looking to find their way in and Nvidia in the mix as well.

Broadcom last week announced its first LTE-capable chip, a necessity to play in most of the U.S. market. MediaTek hopes to have such a chip a year from now. The initial quad-core chip will support HSPA+, the kind of network used by T-Mobile, as well as TD-SCDMA — a key 3G standard in China.

Moynihan notes that a lack of LTE limits its market here in the states but notes that globally LTE is still just getting going.

“The U.S. is certainly a challenge for MediaTek today,” Moynihan said, noting that the company also doesn’t have chips that support the CDMA technology used by Sprint and Verizon. “Europe is a little easier for us. They really haven’t adopted LTE as aggressively.”

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