Spreadtrum rebrands to Unisoc

Editor’s note: Spreadtrum Communications rebranded itself as Unisoc and now describes itself as “a core subsidiary of Tsinghua Unigroup”. The article has been updated to reflect the re-branding.

Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei might rule the mobile processor roost, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only players in town. In the past few years, we’ve also seen another player emerge in the form of China’s Unisoc, mainly gaining ground in the entry-level sector.

Unisoc (formerly Spreadtrum), founded in 2001, has made waves recently thanks to a high-profile partnership with Intel to produce new chips. But you may have used a Unisoc-powered device before, with Samsung being its most high-profile customer.

In fact, we see Unisoc chipsets in Samsung’s Z series of Tizen phones (as seen above), the Galaxy Tab 3 Lite, Galaxy Tab E, and the Galaxy Pocket 2, to name a few models. So it’s fair to say that the company isn’t a fly-by-night player in the market.

What should you expect from Unisoc processors though? We put together a beginner’s guide to Unisoc (Spreadtrum) SoCs.

The low-end Unisoc chips

Unisoc’s first foray into low-end chips, starting in 2012, yielded chips that were lacking features, even back then.

Some chips in their initial lineup lacked 3G capabilities, but we did see single-core A7 or dual-core A5 CPUs and single or dual-core Mali 400 GPUs. These SoCs went toe to toe with the likes of Qualcomm’s S4 Play chip, seeing adoption by the likes of Samsung (Galaxy Pocket 2).

Once the company got moving into the 3G era proper, we saw the firm delivering a bunch of quad-core A7 designs in the low-end category (with the exception of the dual-core SC7727S). Don’t expect A53 cores here at all, let alone the new A55 cores.

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Quad-core A7 trappings aside, we still see the now obsolete Mali 400 GPU being used in these chips. The Mali configurations range from single-core (SC7727S) to dual-core (SC7730A, SC7730S, SC7731G, SC8831G) and quad-core (SC7735S, SC8735S, SC8835S).

A rather interesting observation in this tier is that the number of GPU cores seems to correlate with the camera and video support. The single-core SC7727S tops out at 720p for video support and 8MP for camera size. Meanwhile, the SoCs with dual-core graphics offer up 1080p video/8MP camera support, while the SoCs with quad-core GPUs offer 1080p video and cameras up to 13MPs.

 SC7727SSC9830Snapdragon 212 (MSM8909AA)Mediatek MT6582
CPU2x Cortex-A7 @ 1.2Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.5Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.3Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.3Ghz
GPUMali 400 MP1Mali 400 MP2Adreno 304Mali 400 MP2
Cameras8MP single13MP singleUp to 16MP13MP single
Process28nm28nm28nm28nm

There are three other peculiar chips in this category that we haven’t mentioned, with the first being the dual-core A7 SC9820A. Featuring a single-core Mali 400 GPU, support for 5MP cameras and 720p video viewing. There is also an “E” variant of the SC9820 which uses a dual-core Cortex-A53 CPU and a Mali-T820MP1 GPU. It also supports 4G LTE.

The other two peculiar chips in this bracket are the SC9830A and SC9850, being quad-core A7 designs with LTE capabilities, 1080p video decoding and support for up to 13MP cameras. The former offers a dual-core Mali 400 GPU while the latter delivers newer but single-core Mali T820 graphics.

Notable phones: We’ve seen a couple of major brands opt for these SoCs, with high-profile devices like the Samsung Z1 (SC7727S) and the Samsung Galaxy J3 2016 (SC9830). Believe it or not, but the firm’s low-end SC9820E (dual-core A52) actually powers the Nokia 3310 4G.

TL;DR: The “A” variants of these chips are basically the equivalent of Qualcomm’s 32-bit Snapdragon 200 and 400 series in many ways, and feature the very old Mali-400 GPU. The “E” variants made the move to 64-bit and updated the GPU.

Mid-range

Unisoc’s S300 mid-range chips are quite diverse. First, there is the SC9853I. The “I” probably stands for Intel because this chip uses an octa-core Intel CPU based on the Airmont architecture, as found in some Atom x5 chips. The Intel CPU is coupled with a Mali T820 MP2 GPU from Arm, and a 5 mode LTE Cat7 modem. Plus there is support for a 16Mp camera and 1080P multimedia decoding. The SC9853I is used in the Leagoo T5C.

Unisoc launched the SC9861G-IA back in 2017. It seems a little better on the spec sheet, packing the octa-core Airmont cores but also delivering a 2014-era PowerVR GT7200 GPU, 2560×1600 display resolution, 18:9 screen ratios, 4K/30fps HEVC encoding/decoding and 13MP dual-camera/26MP single camera support.

 SC9853ISC9861G-IASnapdragon 625Snapdragon 845
CPU8x Intel Airmont cores @ 1.8Ghz8x Intel Airmont cores @ 2Ghz8x Cortex-A53 @ 2Ghz8x Kryo 385 @ 2.8Ghz
GPUMali T820 MP2PowerVR GT7200Adreno 506Adreno 630
Camera16MP+8MP dual13MP+13MP dual or 26MP single13MP+13MP dual or 24MP single16MP+16MP dual or 32MP single
Process14nm14nm14nm10nm

The one question though is whether the former SoC will indeed see mass buy-in from manufacturers. Intel’s x86 chips haven’t been in an Android phone for almost two years now, with this essentially being an unofficial Atom processor. But it’s not meant to be a one-off, as Intel CEO Bryan Kazanich says we can indeed expect “additional mobile platforms” as a result of this partnership.

Also in the S300 series are the SC9832E and SC9863A chips. The latter is quite interesting since it uses an octa-core Arm Cortex-A55 based CPU and a PowerVR GPU (the Series8XE GE8322). The SC9832E  can be found in the ZTE Blade A3, while the SC9863A is used in the ZTE Blade A7. The Blade A7 comes with Android 9.0 Pie, a 6.09-inch screen, 8 MP+16 MP cameras, a 3200 mAh battery and two storage options – 2GB+32GB/3GB+64GB.

 

ZTE Blade A7 with Unisoc processor

 

It is also worth mentioning the SC9850KH because it is, according to Unisoc, China’s first LTE mobile phone chip platform with its own proprietary design. There is no mention of what architecture is used for the CPU, only that it is a hexa-core 64-bit processor and it is independently designed. Some Chinese websites indicate that it is an ARMv8 based CPU designed under an architectural license from Arm. The SC9850KH also features an Arm Mali 820 MP1 GPU, and LTE support. It isn’t currently used in any smartphones.

TL;DR: Unisoc’s 64-bit mid-range chips tick all the boxes as good budget processors on paper, but it seems like the company is late to the party and the processors are hard to find in actual devices.

Unisoc’s top-end chips

The S500 top-end series contains the Unisoc Tiger T310. It uses Arm’s DynamIQ architecture and is equipped with a 2.0 GHz Cortex-A75 core, and three smaller 1.8 GHz Cortex-A55 cores. There is no current information about the GPU inside the T310 or about its multimedia or connectivity features.

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TL;DR: The Tiger range is Unisoc’s attempt to bump up the performance of processors without going into direct competition with MediaTek or Qualcomm. It could prove to be a winning strategy in markets like India. However, its midrange chips have suffered from Unisoc’s late entry and the Tiger range could meet the same fate.

 

Where to next for Unisoc?

Unisoc’s relationship with Intel held much promise. However, that seems to have fizzed out. Besides the new Tiger processors, Unisoc could be successful in 5G. Its 5G modem is called the IVY510 and recently Unisoc announced that, together with  successfully made a 5G NR sub-6GHz call.

Read: Why pay a thousand bucks for an iPhone X when you can pay $300 for an Android lookalike?

The only wrinkle seems to be that Unisoc’s 5G technology is based on its relationship with Intel. Intel’s and Unisoc’s 5G partnership was announced in February 2018. It was hailed as a “long-term strategic collaboration on 5G.” The idea was to develop a 5G smartphone platform for the China market featuring an Intel 5G modem. But, Intel has since pulled out of the 5G modem market!

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