MediaTek Joins the Flagship Club

New Dimensity 9000 stakes claim on top-tier phones

In what may be the company’s most significant chipset announcement yet, MediaTek recently unveiled its Dimensity 9000 system-on-chip (SoC), a premium mobile 5G chipset designed to go toe-to-toe with the best from rival Qualcomm.

According to MediaTek, the Dimensity 9000 represents many firsts; the company claims it’s the first modem design compatible with 3GPP Release 16, the first mobile SoC to be produced on TSMC’s 4 nm process and the first to use Armv9 architecture featuring a Cortex-X2 performance core. Support for LPDDR5X SDRAM makes it the fastest mobile data bus design, MediaTek says, complementing the triple image signal processor architecture built into the SoC, enabling it to handle 320-megapixel images.

We expect these specifications to be matched and even eclipsed by Qualcomm at its Snapdragon Tech Summit this week. For MediaTek to beat Qualcomm to the punch with a chipset that squarely competes with those for top-of-the-line smartphones shows how aggressive the Taiwanese chipmaker has become in its transition from a snappy fast-follower to a fully-fledged competitor on a nearly equal footing.

MediaTek has long been synonymous with mainstream mobile chipsets, garnering success as a supplier to mature and inexpensive smartphone designs sold all over the world. Its success didn’t come from being featured in the latest premium smartphone designs, but from the sheer volume of products sold in every market. MediaTek served the industry as a leader in the low-cost segment for many years and has helped to make wireless technology available to billions of people worldwide.

So why did MediaTek feel the need to catch up to Qualcomm at the premium end of the mobile SoC market? Well, it really didn’t have much of a choice as Qualcomm moved down the market over the past several years with its Snapdragon 400 and 600 series chips. Although MediaTek found growth for its chips in areas beyond smartphones, competitive pressure from Qualcomm forced it to step up its research and development and prepare for the 5G transition ahead of schedule. Now, MediaTek is bringing the fight to Qualcomm.

MediaTek’s journey to this point took an indirect route as the Taiwanese chipmaker diversified from core mobile silicon early on to become a market leader in connectivity products as well as Internet of things solutions aimed at consumers. The bulk of its revenue still stems from mobile devices, but it is growth in TVs, Chromebooks and the Internet of things that has given MediaTek new confidence to compete more effectively with market leader Qualcomm.

Its partnership with Amazon has been fruitful, as MediaTek became Amazon’s chip supplier, driving down the cost of Alexa products and making Amazon’s assistant and artificial intelligence technology accessible to more people. Having largely trailed in 4G technology, MediaTek targeted its research and development budget at being early in 5G. Its Dimensity mobile SoC solutions are nearly on a par with those of Qualcomm, save for the millimetre-wave connectivity portion.

We note that this isn’t MediaTek’s first attempt at addressing the “F word” — how the company awkwardly alluded to flagship-level mobile chipsets. It previously made a play for this segment with its Helio range, but the solutions faced problems with the quality of chipset design. MediaTek might have billed Helio’s advances as flagship-worthy, but they actually offered a mid-range performance.

It’s also very important to highlight that the Dimensity 9000 platform lacks support for millimetre-wave 5G, which will present challenges when selling to flagship device-makers that prefer to have a global design. Although this gap may not be a show-stopper for some manufacturers, those that feature significantly in the North American market will be hard-pressed to consider the Dimensity 9000 when all specifications are taken into consideration.

MediaTek’s claims of premium-tier prowess will ultimately be judged by real-world performance. Its announcement of the Dimensity 9000 allows the company to punch its own ticket as a true rival to the undisputed market leader in Qualcomm. And years after its missteps with Helio chips, MediaTek can now finally address the top-tier segment and become a serious contender in the flagship 5G smartphone space.