Pixelworks Iris 5: A Tiny Chip That Brings Premium Visual Experiences to Affordable Smartphones

As smartphones become an important part of our daily lives, the environment has got highly competitive as it is driven by a handful of brands with access to the same supply chain. This makes it difficult for smartphone makers to differentiate their devices from others. As a result, they are segmenting their portfolio by having different sub-brands, focusing on unique features for a particular segment.

Some OEMs operating on a thin hardware margin business model are trying to recoup the revenues from the ecosystem. This puts pressure on other brands to differentiate and add new features while keeping the Bill of Material (BoM) cost pressure in check. Smartphone makers are trying to innovate by adding multiple chips and software algorithms to enhance the overall user experience and save on BoM costs. Some brands are using innovative solutions from companies like Pixelworks to bring premium visual experiences to differentiate their affordable smartphones.

How Pixelworks is Helping OEMs Offer Better Display Solutions

According to Counterpoint Research (report) studying user behavior patterns, users spend more than five hours a day on their smartphones. The usage varies from surfing the internet to playing games.

Meanwhile, another report highlights that the consumption of video content from OTT streaming platforms is on a rise. Keeping the usage pattern and behavior in mind, OEMs are now focusing on improving the viewing experience on smartphones. Video is becoming an important medium from streaming, and communications point of view to short-form video platforms such as TikTok.

As video has become the key content consumed, OEMs are looking to add advanced displays for enhanced viewing and judder-free experience. But as we discussed earlier, the cost of adding these features is significant, and every dollar saved is important for brands in this cut-throat competitive landscape. Companies like Pixelworks with its long heritage in display and video processing for over two decades are offering solutions to drive BoM cost efficiencies and savings while enhancing the user experiences.

Pixelworks portfolio offers a couple of solutions – its “Iris 5” hardware chipset and a software-based “Soft Iris“ solution. The Pixelworks Iris 5 is a tiny low-power visual co-processor for image and video processing to enhance the smartphone display experience. Using this solution, OEMs can unlock a whole gamut of features from color accuracy, smooth and natural motion for high refresh displays, contrast and sharpness enhancements to SDR-to-HDR upscaling alongside a less expensive mid-tier SoC. The solution thus helps OEM offer visually perceptive experience while saving on the BoM costs.

Pixelworks Iris Visual Co-Processor Chip

Iris is Pixelworks fifth-generation visual co-processor, that sits between the SoC and the display driver IC. It supports displays with up to WQHD+ resolution, and up to 120Hz refresh rate. The Iris chip is currently optimized to work with Qualcomm Snapdragon SoCs and OEMs can leverage the power of this chip for Qualcomm powered smartphones.

counterpoint PixelWorks Iris 5 and Soft Iris solution
Source – Pixelworks

The latest generation Iris 5 key capabilities include:

  • For local videos, movies or live-streaming, Iris 5 with dual MIPI offers a smart MotionEngine that can detect and compensate for frame rate mismatch to offer blur-free content in real-time while processing the graphical and video layers separately. This also enhances gaming experiences with smooth, judder-free viewing.
  • HDR10 is mostly supported in premium devices, but with Iris 5 which supports native 10-bit processing can offer certified HDR10 and HDR10+ playback with most accurate tone mapping for mid-tier budget devices. For all other content, an Always-on HDR experience, converts standard video or game SDR (16 million color shades) content to HDR (one billion color shades) in real-time for a richer, more immersive viewing.
  • Iris 5’s Auto Adaptive Display capability adjusts the light, tone, and temperature based on different scenarios. For instance, in bright outdoor conditions, the brightness and contrast will be enhanced for ease of viewing. Similarly, at night or in ambient lighting conditions, the screen brightness will be dimmed dynamically while also reducing blue light to ease the strain on your eyes.

OEMs can also integrate a cheaper Iris 3 chipset for mid-tier chipsets for devices upto 90Hz Display with Single MIPI spec and capabilities such as SDR to HDR, HDR 10, TrueView™ Auto Adaptive, picture quality and color tuning, management and so forth.

Pixelworks Soft Iris Software Solution

Pixelworks also offers a Soft Iris software that can be embedded right into Qualcomm 800-tier premium SoCs as a complementary solution to leverage the advanced display pipelines. Embedding Soft Iris and OEM can offer more accurate color calibration, custom tone, sharpness tuning, Auto Adaptive Display capability and certified cinematic-grade HDR10 & above experience. Soft Iris is, for example, used in Asus ROG Phone II to optimize the display for a superior lag-free gaming experience.

counterpoint pixelworks iris solutions
Source – Pixelworks

Pixelworks is adopting an ecosystem approach to enhance content on the device and also in the cloud. For example: Pixelworks partnered with China’s leading video content platform YouKu to bring high-quality HDR video to a large ecosystem of mobile devices in China. YouKu is using Pixelworks’ TrueCut® platform to enhance its existing and upcoming content to HDR quality for its half a billion active smartphone user base.

Smartphones with Pixelworks Inside

Number of OEMs are adopting Pixelworks solution to bring advanced viewing experiences to their mid-tier Qualcomm powered devices as well as to further enhance some of the premium Snapdragon-powered devices as well. The Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe was one of the first smartphones to come with Pixelworks solutions. However, the turning point was the Nokia 7.1 that launched in 2019, followed by smartphones like the Nokia 7.2, Nokia 6.2 and the latest Nokia 8.3 5G, Asus ROG Phone and ROG Phone 2, BlackShark-series gaming smartphones and ZTE Axon 9 Pro. The recently launched Oppo Find X2 and Find X2 Pro also comes with a high refresh rate display, and Pixelworks Iris 5 chip.

counterpoint smartphones with pixelworks solutions
Source: Counterpoint Research Component Tracker

These smartphones range between $200 – $1,300 segment, with different use-cases. For instance, the ROG Phone-series and BlackShark-series are gaming-centric smartphones. The focus on these phones is to improve the screen refresh rate and improving the dynamic range for a better visual experience. Similarly, on mid-range smartphones like Nokia 7.2, Nokia 6.2, and the latest Nokia 8.3 5G, the chipset improves image and video viewing experience with HDR capabilities, display lighting management for devices sporting LCD displays.

With the dawn of the 5G era, supporting high-resolution, immersive and low-latency video, cloud gaming and Augmented Reality experiences are going to be the key differentiators. Solutions such as Pixelworks will help will assist OEMs to offer these experiences even at affordable price points.

Co-Processor Trends in Smartphones on the Rise

Recently, we saw the launch of some mid-range smartphones in sub-$250 featuring LCD displays with a 120Hz screen refresh rate. Brands are under immense-pressure in the next few years to offer budget 5G smartphones with flagship hardware under $550, and solutions such as Pixelworks will help them get closer to where they need to be.

Commenting on the importance of this approach, Counterpoint’s Component Practice’s Research Analyst, Shobhit Srivastava, said, “Delivering premium quality content (HDR, 4K, 8K) experiences on a smartphone warrant a flagship-grade application processor paired with OLED displays, which increases the cost of the device. However, OEMs looking to differentiate and deliver enhanced video or display experiences using mid-range application processors can benefit from Pixelworks’ Iris co-processor solution. This companion solution can allow OEMs to save anywhere between 5% to 15% of the overall BoM cost. And smartphones sporting economical OLED and SoC, these savings can be further optimized.”

While the Pixelworks solution will help unlock a premium visual experience, we may see a similar approach from OEMs to trickle down advance features on affordable smartphones. The trend to add DSP-centric advanced co-processors will be on the rise from enhancing the audio experience (Hi-Fi lossless audio) to companion AI chip (for multiple use-cases – biometrics, graphics, etc) to a dedicated camera ISP to drive advanced imaging and photography features to affordable phones.

Ritesh is a Global Content Manager with Counterpoint Technology Market Research. With over 10 years of experience, he is joining Counterpoint from BGR India where he was the Head of Features. At BGR, Ritesh also used to cover tech news, product launches, and review consumer tech. Ritesh is a science graduate from Mumbai University, with major in Physics. He followed his passion for tech, took up writing as a career and is also a well-known tech journalist in the industry.

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