MediaTek is in a new role. Analysis firm Counterpoint Research recently declared it the No. 1 mobile chipset company in the world, outpacing Qualcomm with an overall market share of 31%. Much of that success has come in low-cost phones, but for the past few years MediaTek has been amping up its flagship products.
The new Dimensity 1100 and 1200 don’t necessarily face up to Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line 888 or Apple’s A14, but they may cut the legs out from under their competitors’ next-level-down products.
“We take it a little bit in our stride,” says Finbarr Moynihan, MediaTek’s general manager. He points out that while, yes, MediaTek has a lot of great 5G chipsets, it’s riding high primarily on the strength of its 4G product line. That implies key things about the geography of MediaTek’s success. While Qualcomm rules North America, MediaTek does especially well in developing countries where price is more of an object than ultimate power.
The idea here, as always with MediaTek, is to hit the real value spot for phone manufacturers. We saw that calculation in practice with the two models of LG’s Velvet in the US this year. AT&T’s model, running on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765, doesn’t have the same network capabilities as T-Mobile’s, which uses MediaTek’s Dimensity 1000.
So the tech in here tends not to be absolute cutting-edge—it’s more about smart choices. Take the CPU. The Dimensity 1200 has four ARM Cortex-A78 cores in two groups (one 3GHz super-core and three 2.6GHz cores) along with four 2GHz Cortex-A55 efficiency cores. The 1100 has four 2.6GHz A78 cores and four 2GHz A55 cores. Qualcomm uses the even-more-powerful Cortex-X1 in its Snapdragon 888, and Apple uses custom cores, but those incur extra expense for power that many people many not use.
Moynihan says ARM’s off-the-shelf A-series core designs offer “the best balance of price, power and performance” for smartphone chipsets. The company is looking at ARM’s more customizable Core X-series potentially for other devices. We’ll “see more from us going forward” on Chromebooks, for instance, and MediaTek recently released its first SOC designed specifically for hotspots and home internet devices, the T750.
The new chips are made by TSMC in Taiwan on a 6nm process, which means they consume less power than the previous generation.
Rather than doing multiple image signal processors like the latest Qualcomm chips, MediaTek goes big with a five-core ISP in the 1200 that supports 200-megapixel stills and 4K HDR video capture. MediaTek promises better dynamic range, faster night-shot setup, and AI-based segmentation and bokeh, all par for the course in leading chipsets right now. The 1100 supports 108MP pictures, which syncs up with the 108MP cameras we’re currently seeing on flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Onscreen, the Dimensity 1200 supports 168Hz displays, while the 1100 supports 144Hz.
MediaTek doesn’t play as heavily in the US market as it does in some others, because one of the cost choices it made was not to support millimeter-wave 5G—at least so far. The Dimensity 1100 and 1200 both have sub-6GHz 5G based on the same M70 modem we saw in the Dimensity 1000. It can combine two channels of sub-6GHz 5G, where the modem in the Snapdragon 765 can only use one—that means they’ll work well on T-Mobile’s mid-band and AT&T’s low-band networks, but won’t work on Verizon’s “UWB” millimeter-wave network, so they won’t get picked up by Verizon.
Moynihan notes that all of MediaTek’s5G chipsets already support the upcoming C-Band spectrum being auctioned in the US right now, so if phone makers want to get on board with C-band—and they probably will—MediaTek isn’t standing in the way.
The Dimensity 1100 and 1200 are coming to phones early this year, but probably first to phones in China, where MediaTek chipsets are popular. Here in the US, we’re most likely to see products like this in midrange T-Mobile 5G phones. MediaTek will likely have to wait for a millimeter-wave-compatible chipset to truly break through in the US.