Chromebooks, Windows and how MediaTek plans to win computing
Last week was MediaTek’s Executive Summit in Laguna Beach, and the company sponsored a group of journalists and influencers to head out there and hear what the firm had to say. While there were no new announcements related to the company’s Chromebook efforts, I got to sit down with Victor Tyan, who leads MediaTek’s compute efforts in the Americas and in Europe.
About this article: While MediaTek sponsored travel and accommodations for this trip, no coverage was expected, and none of our coverage was sponsored by MediaTek.
One of the things that struck me about the conference as a whole is just how you can just feel the momentum when talking to people from this company. I can’t say this strongly enough: do not sleep on MediaTek.
So, being that the firm has already been doing well in entry-level Chromebooks, it’s shifting to the mid-tier, it already has announcements for premium, and it had already talked about ambitions to move into Windows laptops, I was excited to sit down and talk to Victor.
Sitting at a table on the balcony at a five-star hotel, overlooking palm trees and the Pacific Ocean, I started out by asking why someone should buy a MediaTek Chromebook, as opposed to Intel or even a different ARM option like Qualcomm.
Rich: First of all, I want to know why someone should buy a MediaTek Chromebook. Because obviously, every company that makes any kind of CPU has its own value proposition. I know you had slides today comparing the Kompanio 820 to a Celeron N4500. You didn’t talk much about the 828, and I’m going to ask you about that too. But you also might compare that to a Snapdragon 7c, so why MediaTek over Qualcomm, because I already understand some of the benefits over Intel. So, why MediaTek?
Victor: That’s a good question. I didn’t talk about the 828 too much mostly because of the timing. We think that goes up against the Celeron N5100, which is the quad-core version from Intel. We have benchmarks against that, and maybe we can set up a session to talk more about that.
Against Intel, on the single-core performance, I think it’s close, within 10%. Maybe we’re a bit ahead. On the multi-core, that’s where we just overtake them, big time. We have eight cores, they have two cores on the N4500. Or we have eight, and they have four on the N5100. And then on the GPU side, the Mali GPU that’s in the 820 and 828 just does so much better in the Manhattan benchmarks vs the Intel graphics engine. If you look at the 820 and 828 vs Intel, your value prop is going to be when you start running multiple tasks.
With the benchmarks I showed today, where I’m adding more functionality – I’m doing a screen-share, then I’m doing a virtual background – when we go back to just one task, they’re about the same. The gap starts to widen as you add more tasks. That is an interesting behavior that most people don’t realize.
Rich: What about when compared to Qualcomm, because they do have eight cores?
Victor: Qualcomm right now, with the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2, they do have eight cores, but they’re running a 2 + 6 configuration. Two big A76, and six small. We’re running four big and four small. So when we do single-core benchmarks, we’re about the same with the 7c. When we do multi-core, we beat them because we have two more bigger cores. And when we do GPU, we actually do better than the 7c Adreno.
Rich: Are we talking about Kompanio 820 or 828?
Victor: Both. They have the same architecture, but the 828 is clocked at 2.6GHz.
Rich: So it’s just a clock speed difference between the two?
Victor: It’s a clock speed difference. To your question about how we compete with Qualcomm in general, that’s a very valid question because we have a lot of similarities. We have 5G, they have 5G. We have connectivity, they have connectivity.
Looking for MediaTek-powered cellular Chromebooks? You’ll have to wait
Another thing I wanted to ask was about cellular connectivity in Chromebooks. We don’t see it as much from MediaTek, while Qualcomm has been pushing it as a value proposition for its platforms. It seems to be that MediaTek is simply pushing a different strategy, as you’ll notice that the focus is more on performance.
I’ve heard this from OEMs too. Outside of the business use case, there’s not much priority on cellular connectivity. In fact, even Qualcomm’s Windows on ARM laptops are all starting to come with Wi-Fi-only base models.
Rich: I wanted to ask you about that too, because I see these MediaTek Chromebooks and I don’t see so much cellular connectivity.
Victor: I was surprised that question didn’t come up today.
Rich: Oh I was saving my questions for this.
Victor: With cellular connectivity, if you think about it technology-wise, we have all of the pieces. The natural question is, why don’t you have it? It’s a timing issue. If you look at cellular today on Chromebooks, it’s coming in pockets. One pocket, which I would say is sizable, is the digital divide. In the U.S., there are about 17 million students and seven million households that don’t have access to broadband. That came about in the pandemic because they had to do their schoolwork but they can’t connect. It’s being addressed right now with Mi-Fi cellular routers. If that could be integrated into a $250 device with an integrated modem, that would have done really well.
We were counting on a more natural progression. Another pocket is enterprise. If your company is paying for you to be always-connected, wouldn’t that be nice? You’d be getting emails on your laptop any time. You’d get more work done, so there’s some motivation there.
The third is super-rich people who just want to always be connected and they’re willing to pay data rates. Those are the three buckets we see today. None of them are really large enough and have created enough momentum to warrant having cellular connectivity. What it really means for us is that it’s a timing issue. It will come.
Rich: But don’t you think it’s a chicken or egg situation, where the devices don’t exist so the model doesn’t exist from carriers to make it feasible? And then devices aren’t being made for the same reason.
Victor: There’s some aspect of chicken and egg but there’s also a need, like who has that need and are they willing to pay for it? I think that’s the element that makes us need to get the timing right. We’ll have a solution, for sure. Right now there are solutions through external modules, but we will bring it in when we think it’s good timing for the market. I can’t share any timing but I think it’s close on the horizon.
Rich: I’m impressed that you talk about performance when you talk about a value proposition over Intel. It’s a bit easier with Chromebooks than with Windows, but Qualcomm talks a lot about connectivity and battery life, but not so much about performance over Intel.
Victor: And to your question about value prop, there is that multitasking aspect, and then versus x86 you have that battery life story. You saw the metrics I was showing today. It’s a really strong battery life story, because it’s tied into the form factor and the weight. There is a dependency there. We’re able to achieve that amazing long life with a 33% smaller battery.
Rich: I’ve noticed that with ARM devices that I’ve used. Sometimes battery life will be roughly the same, but the device is that much thinner and lighter.
Victor: If you think about the Lenovo Duet, if you were designing that with an Intel chipset, it would be pretty challenging. You’d have to use a small battery to make it fit, and your battery life would probably drop below the Google standard. Google requires at least 10 hours for Chromebooks. That’s why if you look at the detachables, nearly all of them are using ARM-based processors, either MediaTek or Qualcomm.
Look at the Lenovo Duet, look at the ASUS CM3000, look at the Lenovo Duet 5, and look at the HP Chromebook x2 11. They’re all using ARM because you cannot use an Intel processor and get the battery life.
The push toward premium MediaTek-powered Chromebooks
I also asked about the Kompanio 1200, the chipset that’s going to be aimed at premium Chromebooks. It was announced over a year ago and teased again at MediaTek Summit, but it still hasn’t shown up in devices. It’s pretty exciting to watch MediaTek push toward the premium segment of the market.
There’s another tier coming soon too, as the company differentiates between premium and flagship (often jokingly referred to as the F-word).
Rich: I wanted to ask about the Kompanio 1200 as well. You announced that about a year ago, very high-level specs were mentioned. You didn’t say much, but it’s 6nm Cortex-A78, the most powerful ARM-based chipset for Chromebooks, which is cool…
Victor: We expect it to be. We don’t know what our competitors will launch. But I think by the time it launches in the market, it will have the highest performance. And today we have the highest performance with the 820 and 828.
Rich: So, what happened? When it was announced, I thought it was for 2021?
Victor: I don’t think it was, or maybe it was late 2021, but we haven’t had any surprises. OEMs are very interested in that platform. And I’d say the top OEMs.
Rich: Who are the top OEMs? Not necessarily for this in general, but the top ones that MediaTek works with on Chromebooks.
Victor: We’re with HP, Acer, ASUS, Lenovo. Those are the four. Dell is very Intel-focused so it’s going to be tough to convert them.
Rich: They’re finally selling AMD machines so they’re getting there.
Victor: So, the OEMs are showing a lot of interest in it. It’s going to be a game-changer, I think. This is the first platform that’s going to enable you to do a lot of things, like heavy multitasking, 4K dual displays, gaming, content creation. This will be a really beefy device that you can do a lot of stuff with, unless you’re doing something that requires something like a Core i9.
Rich: This is a Chrome OS-specific chip, right?
Victor: It is. The Kompanio 1200 is for Chromebooks. I think you’ll start hearing more about it soon, potentially at CES. We may have some OEMs make some announcements at CES, so that will give you a lot more insight into devices and the specs, so stand by for that one.
Rich: You had said premium devices, meaning $400 and above, right? That’s an impressive definition of premium.
Victor: Today, the 820 and 828 are going to come in in the high 300s, maybe in the $399 range, so you can imagine that the 1200 would be in the segment above that.
Rich: What’s the price range for Kompanio 500?
Victor: Typically sub-$300, but it depends on the form factor.
Rich: Was that what was in the Lenovo Duet?
Victor: Yes, and when you think of how good that was, think of how good the 1200 will be. From 500 to 820, it’s 2.6x performance. And then 820 to 1200 is another 70-80% bump. That’s why that 1200 chipset is going to be very usable for many, many people. There will be some people that need more, but in general, it will hit a wide range of use cases.
Rich: Speaking of people that need more, you did say that there’s more coming. I noticed that there’s no Kompanio 9000, like how we just got the Dimensity 9000 for mobile. When are we going to hear the F-word (flagship) for compute?
Victor: Well you saw the segmentation that Ken presented, right? We have 500, 800, 1000 is premium, and then 2000 for the F-word. We upgrade our premium tier more regularly than we upgrade our entry tier. If you look at the refresh rates for each of the segments, generally it’s faster on the higher tiers. The lower tiers, since they’re more cost optimized, take a longer cycle. Think of it as maybe one or two years from when you see a 1200.
Rich: But a 2000 wouldn’t be a refresh of the 1200, right? They’d live side by side, right?
Victor: Right, but those higher tiers get refreshed sooner. I can’t share a date on that, but it’ll happen.
Rich: I see these types of things as disruptive, because Intel is obviously the incumbent in all things laptop and computing. Obviously ARM can provide value in ways that Intel can’t do, so one of the things I always find myself asking is when you’re going to hit those other tiers that are still just owned by Intel, because there are high-end Chromebooks that have a Core i7 and 16GB RAM. What I’m learning this week is that you guys might be the ones in a position to disrupt that.
Victor: Yea, but first, we’re going to focus on the $300 to $500 range, because that’s also what Google needs to break through. Before they can go into the $600 or $700 range, they have to break into that $300 to $500 range.
Rich: So you’re working your way up.
Victor: Yes, we’re going to work our way up, exactly. And we’re going to stay aligned with Google because that’s where they’re going to invest and double down, and we’re going to be there with them.
WOK (Windows on Kompanio)
Next up was Windows on ARM. The company had already talked about it in various sessions and private conversations. We know it’s happening, and when the space opens up, MediaTek will be there. I tried to dig into what those plans might be a bit more.
Rich: What about Windows?
Victor: The interest is there. If you’re in compute, you have to have that interest, right? Definitely the intention is there, but a few things have to line up.
Rich: What has to line up?
Victor: Firstly, the ecosystem has to open up, like if you think about it from a Microsoft perspective, they need to get certain things done before they can open it up. If you were running that program, you might pilot with one SoC vendor, and then once it’s mature, open it up to the rest. That’s a natural way to run a program because they want to make it right. They don’t want to open it up too early.
Rich: Well they’ve always told me that this wasn’t exclusive to Qualcomm. They’ve always said that if anyone wanted to do this, they could.
Victor: Well, the interest is there, so if they can get us in tomorrow, that’s great for us. Like I said, it’s a huge opportunity.
Rich: It’s a big opportunity for MediaTek, so what value do you think MediaTek could bring to Windows laptops?
Victor: A lot of them are what we’re seeing in those lower segments in Chomebooks. It will be lightweight and thin, so if you look at the thickness of the device, it’s sub-16mm thickness. You’ll see all-day battery life. These are the things we’ve been kind of deprived of.
Rich: Do you think you’d come in at a lower price point than Qualcomm?
Victor: Many people think that our differentiation is that we’re lower-priced than Qualcomm.
Rich: That wasn’t what I was trying to imply.
Victor: I know, but that’s not always the case. There are some situations where we will apply that strategy, there are others where if we have a premium or a value add that they don’t have, we will command that premium.
Rich: One place where I watch you and Qualcomm is in the Chromebook space, and I see something like the Lenovo Duet and the thing costs under $300, comes with a keyboard, and it’s an amazing value. And I don’t see Qualcomm competing on that level of value. That’s why I ask.
Victor: Qualcomm entered the space with the Snapdragon 7c, which is more of a mid-tier. That’s why we see it fall in with the Kompanio 820, not really comparing with the 8183 (Kompanio 500), so that’s the segment they decided to enter. That’s where they are, but in the future, but I’m sure they’ll cover other segments.
Like I said earlier, don’t sleep on MediaTek. This is a company that has experienced tremendous growth over the last couple of years and seems confident in its ability to take on whatever it decides it wants to.
That includes computing. I remember when I reviewed the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, and what really impressed me was just how great it seemed for its sub-$300 price. Seeing MediaTek poised to take on the premium segment, the flagship segment beyond that, and even Windows laptops, makes me excited to watch this company’s journey unfold.