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Next for Qualcomm: faster WiFi and a gateway to cheap tablets

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Computex is the perfect sort of tech convention for a chip giant like Qualcomm. It's all about companies showing off their wares so that other companies will actually want to buy them. And this year, Qualcomm made two major announcements that should intrigue plenty of potential customers: advancements in MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input/multiple output) technology, which aims to make our 802.11ac WiFi speeds more efficient and ultimately faster, as well as a partnership with AllWinner, a Chinese firm that designs low-cost mobile chips.

Gallery: Qualcomm at Computex 2015 | 6 Photos

MU-MIMO and you

As much as we all rely on WiFi these days, even fairly modern wireless tech can be absurdly inefficient, especially when you've got multiple devices using a single access point. That's something the wireless industry aims to solve with MU-MIMO, an upgraded version of the MIMO standard (which brought us faster WiFi speeds years ago). As we move toward bandwidth-heavy applications like 4K video streaming, it'll be particularly important to make sure your network is making the most of its bandwidth.

Qualcomm was the first company to launch products using MU-MIMO over a year ago, but those were mainly focused on commercial access points. Now the company is broadening support for consumer routers with its new QCA9984 chip, as well as enterprise access points with the QCA9994. Both offer four simultaneous wireless streams (think of them as adding more lanes to your router's highway of WiFi traffic), up from just three streams from last year's parts. They can also hop between wireless channels to take advantage of all the wireless spectrum in your home, and they support wider 160MHz 802.11ac channels (even if they're not right next to each other).

If you don't care about the nitty-gritty of how MU-MIMO works, you just need to understand this: Your WiFi is about to get a lot better -- and just in the knick of time. Qualcomm's been seeding the technology in its WiFi chips for the past year. If you've got a new Android phone or PC running a Qualcomm chipset, you'll be ready to take advantage of all MU-MIMO has to offer when you upgrade to an 802.11ac router using Qualcomm's tech. The company expects to have customers using its new MU-MIMO chips in products by the end of the year.

"We're now in a kind of ramp-up place; we've delivered and are shipping [MU-MIMO] products," Todd Antes, vice president of product management at Qualcomm Atheros, told us. "Now we're in the phase of seeing OEMS launch products. We're hoping by 2016 this becomes a standard feature in 802.11ac clients and access points."

AllWinner for the win

You've probably never heard of AllWinner, but it's quickly earned a name for itself in China with its inexpensive chip designs, which helped to kick off the rush of white-label tablets. Those are tablets that get licensed by other companies and sold for cheap all over the world (you can find a few at Walmart). But while they're not the sexiest devices around, the white-label tablet market is growing fast and it likely won't slow down anytime soon. So it makes perfect sense for Qualcomm to team up with AllWinner and take advantage of its access with that market.

"I think both of us bring a very unique capability to the partnership," said Seshu Madhavapeddy, vice president of mobile product management at Qualcomm. "You can basically credit [AllWinner] for creating the white-label tablet market in China, and we bring capability in connected chipsets, whether it's 3G or 4G. We brainstormed with AllWinner and figured the best way to bring our technology to bear in that market is to partner with them."

The partnership will see AllWinner offer Qualcomm's Snapdragon 410 and 210 chip designs to customers building LTE-enabled tablets. While AllWinner has chip designs of its own, it doesn't have any that integrate LTE radios, which is basically Qualcomm's specialty. Qualcomm was quick to point out it's not investing in AllWinner; rather the two companies will simply benefit from each other's strengths. The partnership is similar to the one Intel recently struck with RockChip to get into China's cheap tablet market. So, in a sense, Qualcomm also had to find a partner or risk losing out.

One potential problem for Qualcomm is that the white-label tablet market isn't exactly known for well-made wares. But the company thinks it can help fix that. "I think that the white-label market in China is making huge strides in improving quality, as well as in their engineering innovation capability," Madhavapeddy said. "So what might have been true last year is not going to be true this year. And we think as Qualcomm we'll bring a high level of innovation to this market."

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