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Sensor Hubs Seeing Big Gains
Apr 16, 2014
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Sensor hubs are seeing gargantuan gains, according to analysis from IHS Technology.

Sensor hubs are microcontroller-based components that take the burden of some task processing off of application processors, helping to extend battery life for smartphones and tablets. Sensor hubs' gains are coming on the back of the global microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) market, where IHS expects 2014 shipment growth to be in the triple-digits.

Sensor hubs 2014 unit shipments worldwide are expected to be 658.4 million, up 154% from 2013's 259.6 million units.

The research firm said the market started from a low initial base in 2011. The market's 2012 growth rate exceeded 2,000%. IHS expects the market to grow 1,300%, to shipments of 1.3 billion units, in 2017.

“A sensor hub is a low-power processor that can be used to perform calculations on data from sensors, the hub thereby saving power on a device by off-loading such tasks from the power-intensive application processor,” said Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. “The use of sensor hubs is increasingly crucial because of the push for ‘always on’ sensors used for activity monitoring, voice-command operation and contextual awareness.”

Smartphones, tablets, and other devices are making increasing background use of motion sensors, light sensors, microphones, and other sensors. However, most sensor processing continues to happen on an application processor—a method that uses too much power. The need for a low-power solution has become crucial.

Boustany said that, by centralizing sensor processing in a more efficient way through sensor hubs, power usage and battery life are optimized.

IHS described three different approaches for centralized processing in a sensor hub:

Approach One uses an external hub, usually a dedicated microcontroller (MCU). These are supplied by chipmakers such as Atmel, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, and NXP Semiconductor. Smartphones using this approach include the Apple iPhone 5s, the Samsung Galaxy S5, and the Motorola Moto X.

Approach Two makes use of a low-power sensor hub as part of an application processor, supplied by Qualcomm, Intel, and Nvidia, through a low-power core. Other suppliers are entering this market: Samsung’s Exynos, MediaTek, and HiSilicon. IHS explained that this integrated approach, compared to the discrete MCU format, reduces additional chip-design efforts and requires no additional components. However, such a configuration cannot currently match the lower power requirements of MCUs. IHS sees Apple as likely to continue using the MCU approach for its high-end products, even if the MCU solution is overtaken in the market by the application-processor approach after 2016.

Approach Three implements sensor hubs using a package that combines a low-power processor, usually an MCU, and one or more sensors, often a accelerometer and gyroscope. IHS noted that the accelerometer and gyroscope are the most common sensor combination, which allows for activity and motion tracking, from step counting to detailed motion tracking and contextual awareness. The primary proponents of this approach are InvenSense and STMicroelectronics. Bosch, Freescale Semiconductor, and Kionix also offer these products.

The research firm sees two new approaches developing:

One is a field-programmable gate array (FPGA)-based sensor hub allowing for a very low-power solution that can be redesigned by OEMs.

Another new approach is a GPS-chipset-based sensor hub with location-tracking functions in addition to motion-sensor processing.

IHS expects both of these new formats to ship in small volumes, compared to the other three solutions, in the next four years.

Tom Hackenberg, senior analyst for MCUs & microprocessors at IHS, said the MCU approach will be the overall best-performing and most flexible solution for high-end handsets and tablets for the next several development generations. The application-processor-based approach will be the most convenient for handset and tablet makers, and will make its way into mid- to high-end handsets, alone or with one of the other sensor hub implementations as a layered solution. The combined processor and sensors approach might also be used in midrange to high-end products, and could be used by itself or with a different sensor hub implementation.

IHS also ranked sensor hub suppliers:
• Atmel has 32% of total industry shipments
• Qualcomm has 29% market share
• NXP had 24% market share

Other important suppliers:
• Texas Instruments
• Rohm Semiconductor
• STMicroelectronics
• InvenSense
• Nvidia

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