Since it first infected our brains in 1994, the Intel jingle paved the way for people to start paying attention to the processors inside their devices. Intel’s branding was genius, making it the chipmaker of choice for customers who knew nothing about tech. Fast forward 26 years, and many have tried, but no processor maker has achieved the notoriety Intel has, not least of all, MediaTek.
Once renowned for underpowered, overheating, affordable experiences in devices like the Sony Xperia XA (2017), the Taiwanese silicon maker is now better known for giving the smartphone establishment (Qualcomm), a serious run for its money. Founded in 1997, MediaTek was an offshoot of United Microelectronics Corporation, Taiwan’s first semiconductor company and a spin-off of the government-sponsored Industrial Technology Research Institute.
From not so humble beginnings in Taiwan, MediaTek was producing smartphone components by 2004, and 16 years on, it has jumped to the top of the smartphone processor leaderboard in neighbouring China, with a 38.3 per cent share of the market in Q2 this year, overtaking Qualcomm’s 37.8 per cent according to DigiTimes research. The company as a whole is now worth an estimated $38.5 billion.
Three of our six current best budget tablets are powered by MediaTek chips. Despite being associated with affordability, there’s even a MediaTek chip in one of our best smartphones for any budget list, the Oppo Reno 2 Z. That phone’s successor, the Reno 4Z (Oppo skipped the Reno 3 series in the west), is one of the most affordable 5G phones on the market at £329, and it’s powered by a MediaTek Dimensity 800 chipset. MediaTek’s answer to Qualcomm’s popular Snapdragon 765G, it delivers a virtually indistinguishable experience across the board and is expected to drive down the cost of 5G going into 2021.
But MediaTek chips power more than just smartphones. After partnering with Amazon, Peloton, Roku, Sony, and even fellow chip-maker, Intel, this lesser-known brand is infiltrating our smart homes and helping to make 5G more affordable.
Let’s start with the MediaTek gear you probably already own: Amazon devices. The partnership hit the bigtime when Amazon switched up its tablet strategy from premium to affordable in 2015. The Fire HD tablet was the first to feature a MediaTek processor, seeing MediaTek take over from Texas Instruments, which provided the chips for past-gen Fire tablets. While the Fire HD wasn’t exactly lauded for its performance, its value was unbeatable. Since its launch, Amazon’s affordable tablet experiences have improved steadily and are now very good for the price. In 2020, the retail giant even overtook Samsung as the number one Android tablet maker in the US and MediaTek itself makes an even bolder claim to be the number one chipset maker for tablets in the world.
MediaTek hasn’t just flooded homes with Amazon tablets though. Since the first Echo Dot launched in 2016, introducing Amazon’s AZ1 Neural Edge Processor, Amazon and MediaTek have been going at it across the entire Echo line. That doesn’t just cover smart speakers; MediaTek also took over from Intel on the Echo Show smart displays in 2019. Even Amazon’s more experimental launches – the Smart Oven and Soundbar, for example, are powered by MediaTek internals.
For a company known to tech enthusiasts for affordable mobile chips, it really is everywhere. Perhaps most impressive, it’s the number one manufacturer of TV processors, with a market share of over 70%, from Roku to Sony, TV sticks to full-blown TVs. We’re not done with product categories – the list is as exhaustive as it is impressive. MediaTek also makes Chromebook chips including the one inside the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet, a clever laptop/tablet hybrid that’s yes, good value, but also one of the best-reviewed Chromebooks to date.
If you’re one of the lucky home fitness elite that justified stumping up around two grand on a Peloton Bike (plus a £59 monthly subscription), you too have a MediaTek chip in your home. While MediaTek lost out for round two — the latest Peloton Bike+ is powered by a Qualcomm chip, perhaps owing to the success of the original Peloton and the company’s beefed-up budgets, its chips can still be found across a huge range of training tech. Brands like NordicTrack, Pro Form, and Tonal (a smart screen vertical rower), all have MediaTek tech inside.
Despite all this success though, MediaTek is a relative unknown. Is it failing catastrophically to market its wares? Of course not.
MediaTek isn’t a consumer brand; it sells to tech companies, and it’s clearly doing a good job of it, and its current marketing push seems to be all about 5G. It’s partnering with Intel – yes, sleeping with the frenemy to add its modems to Intel’s processors, with the aim of levelling up laptops with 5G connectivity. That means Intel 5G laptops will be taking on the likes of the Qualcomm-powered Lenovo Yoga 5G and other connected computers.
On the subject of 5G, it’s worth talking about smartphones in a bit more detail. MediaTek is already enabling affordable 5G experiences with the Dimensity 800-powered Oppo Reno 4Z (£329). Qualcomm, MediaTek’s arch-nemesis is doing the same though. Its Snapdragon 765G can be found in phones as affordable as the Realme X50 5G, which costs just £299. So until MediaTek-powered 5G phones can really undercut those powered by Qualcomm – 5G won’t be the public-facing win for the Taiwanese chip-maker.
The real hook for MediaTek as far as we see it is this: we’re at a turning point in smartphone history, one that MediaTek’s likely been banking on for years.
For the first time ever, midrange smartphone chips like the Dimensity 800 and Snapdragon 765G are good enough. They’re good enough for smooth day to day taps and swipes, stutter-free 4K video capture, and yes, even 3D gaming. The latest blockbuster mobile title, Genshin Impact, a JRPG that’s free-to-play, but has raked in over $100M in its first two weeks since launching, plays back pretty well on the £329, Oppo Reno 4Z.
So while MediaTek used to be a mark of inferiority on a smartphone spec sheet; a brand that manufacturers hid behind specs like “quad-core power”, its sheer affordability helped it get its foot in the door with loss leaders like Amazon. The hungry chipmaker has since found its way into a host of devices and appliances, and now finds itself in a coveted position – on the cusp of 5G going mainstream, with brands like Oppo and Intel knocking on its door.
And so, between a global financial crisis compelling smartphone makers to keep costs down; MediaTek’s spread risk across industries and affordable chip performance finally being good enough for, if we’re honest, everybody, this is a long game that is playing out quite beautifully.
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