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With the Dimensity 9000, MediaTek finally has a shot at beating Qualcomm

Source: MediaTek

There is a unified theme for the best Android phones of 2021 – they all feature Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 platform. Sure, the Galaxy S21 in the global market is equipped with Samsung’s Exynos 2100, but Qualcomm has an outsized share of the high-end segment.

Qualcomm extended its lead in this segment thanks to robust designs and marketing efforts – the Snapdragon name has a strong recall in key markets such as India and China. While Exynos and Huawei’s HiSilicon have tried to make a dent in Qualcomm’s dominance, they haven’t quite succeeded in the high-end category.

Then there is MediaTek. The Taiwanese manufacturer relies on the budget and mid-range categories, but is increasingly turning to the flagship. The Dimensity 9000 is the best yet, with the platform featuring Arm’s latest cores, a new neural engine, and a decent 5G modem.

In fact, the Dimensity 9000 shares many similarities with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 – Qualcomm’s 2022 flagship. Both chipsets use the same core cluster, are built on a 4nm node and include the latest innovations in imaging, multimedia and connectivity.

MediaTek’s first attempt in this category was a disaster

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central

Three years ago, it would have been unthinkable to compare a MediaTek chipset to an equivalent Qualcomm offering, especially in the high-end segment. MediaTek’s first foray into this category was the Helio X30, a ten-core behemoth built on a 10nm node.

The Helio X30 was a chaotic launch for MediaTek.

Released with much fanfare in 2017, the Helio X30 not only lived up to what Qualcomm offered at the time — the Snapdragon 835 — but also had issues with overheating and efficiency, making it a no-starter. It’s no wonder, then, that the Helio X30 faded into infamy shortly after its debut; unlike the Meizu 7 series and the China-exclusive Vernee Apollo 2, MediaTek was unable to make any design gains.

Sravan Kundojjala, director of Strategy Analytics’ Handset Component Technology division, says the X30 was a setback for MediaTek. “The chip was inefficient and had a weak LTE modem that was nowhere near what Qualcomm offered at the time. As a result, volumes were low and the X30 ended up being a failure for MediaTek.”

Early investment in 5G pays off for MediaTek

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central

MediaTek’s turnaround began shortly after the X30 debacle. Kundojjala points to MediaTek’s decision to abandon its LTE modem efforts — where it didn’t make much headway against Qualcomm — and instead focus on 5G as the differentiator. By doing so, MediaTek was able to roll out a slew of 5G-enabled designs targeting the budget and mid-range segment.

MediaTek quickly launched 5G chipsets and it paid off, seeing sales triple in 2021.

“MediaTek didn’t have a chipset with a gigabit LTE modem, but their shift to 5G meant they could deliver chipsets as 5G services started to take off in markets like China,” Kundojjala said. “2020 in particular was a milestone year for MediaTek as they showed they could do something similar to Qualcomm.”

And the strategy paid off. According to figures shared by Strategy Analytics, MediaTek sold nearly 50 million chipsets in 2020, with 5G-compatible designs making up a large share of orders. They didn’t hurt on the revenue front either. “MediaTek’s 4G-capable chipsets would sell for around $10, but 5G allowed them to charge $30 for their mid-range designs,” Kundojjala notes.

That momentum continued into 2021, with MediaTek posting revenues of $150 million – three times more than last year. Much of this has to do with the manufacturer’s significant design gains in the mid-range segment: the OnePlus Nord 2, Realme GT Neo, Redmi K40 Gaming, Xiaomi 11T and Vivo X70 Pro all had the 1200 size.

Dimensity 9000 is the first wave in MediaTek .’s flagship ambitions

Source: MediaTek

MediaTek’s resurgence in mid-market sales acted as a catalyst for its flagship ambitions, with the Dimensity 9000 being the first realization of those efforts.

MediaTek is aiming for double digit market share with its flagship designs.

It’s understandable why MediaTek focuses on the high-end segment – there’s a lot more sales potential. “While MediaTek is now charging $30 for its mid-range designs, it could get more than double that for its high-end chipsets,” said Kundojjala. “China alone accounts for somewhere between 80 and 90 million high-end phones, and MediaTek is aiming for double-digit market share in the region.”

Huawei’s trials have also played into MediaTek’s hands. Huawei’s Mate and P series have sales of 40 million, and while that number is steadily declining, the brand still has its fair share of the Chinese market.

Now that Huawei is no longer able to use its internal HiSilicon unit to provide the Kirin designs that fit into its phones, it needs an alternative. MediaTek sets itself up to be just that; it already equips Huawei with 4G-enabled chipsets for budget and mid-range phones, and it aims to do the same in the high-end category, Kundojjala says.

North America is still out of reach for MediaTek

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central

While the Dimensity 9000 is a bold step forward for MediaTek, the manufacturer isn’t going to make it into North America anytime soon. Kundojjala points to the lack of mmWave 5G connectivity as a deal breaker for the Dimensity 9000 in the region.

The Dimensity 9000 lacks mmWave 5G, making it a no-starter in North America.

“MediaTek isn’t focusing on mmWave for now, and while that saves a lot of complexity, it’s going to be a problem in the long run,” Kundojjala noted. “The fact that they don’t have an internal RF unit means they have to buy RF front-end modules from the likes of Broadcom, Qualcomm or Skyworks.”

The lack of an RF front-end could prove to be a bigger hurdle for MediaTek in the coming years, as it will have to rely on a third-party vendor for the necessary hardware. Qualcomm, for its part, has a large RF division and delivers an all-in-one solution with its Snapdragon chipsets. MediaTek should be doing the same, and soon.

For now, MediaTek focuses on China, India and selects western markets to boost its growth. The Dimensity 9000 is a great showcase for the brand, one that has the potential to compete with Qualcomm in the high-end segment – provided it achieves a few design wins. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to hear more on that front.

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