Taking a Look at MediaTek

What comes to mind when the name MediaTek is mentioned? To an average consumer, it may just be another chipset company, but to tech enthusiasts, words like ‘China phones’, ‘GPL’, and ‘true octa-core’ can come up when MediaTek is mentioned. Today we take a look at the Taiwan based MediaTek, one of the largest chipset manufacturers in the world.

The Company

MediaTek HQ

MediaTek’s headquarters in Taiwan (Google Maps)

MediaTek, according to their description as listed on Wikipedia, is a ‘fabless semiconductor company that provides system-on-chip solutions for wireless communications, HDTV, DVD and Blu-ray’. Of course, what MediaTek is well known for now are not their DVD player SoCs, but the smartphones that come with their chipsets. We will be taking a look at MediaTek’s contributions to the smartphone market here.

Products

MediaTek at the time of writing has a total of 9 mainstream smartphone chipsets: the MT6572, MT6582, MT6592, MT6595, MT6732, MT6735, MT6752, MT6753, and the MT6795. Each chipset has their own variants, some with higher or lower clock speeds, while some others having an extra or lesser cores, such as the MT6591, a variant of the MT6592; or the MT6589, a variant of the MT6582 having a clock speed of 1.5 GHz instead.

The lower end chipsets, such as the dual-core MT6572, are notoriously known for their usage in clone devices that usually originate from China. These devices are usually slow, buggy, and sometimes can break within a few days of usage. While they may be used in these slower and buggier devices, the chipsets are also used in devices which are genuinely worth the money, such as those by Elephone and many other Chinese OEMs. The higher end chipsets, such as the 64-bit octa-core MT6752 and the 32-bit octa-core MT6592 are commonly used in mainstream devices and flagships such as Meizu’s M2 Note. In a nutshell, it means that whether high end or low end, MediaTek’s chipsets have a place.

Public Perception

HDC Mobile

HDC Mobile, one of the more notorious clone device makers

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the phrase ‘China phones’ is usually linked to MediaTek, as many Chinese OEMs, especially those that are not mainstream, use MediaTek’s chipsets in their devices. This is due to MediaTek’s chipsets being ridiculously cheap – being cheap means that any OEM starting out can simply take any MediaTek chipset and build budget devices for their customers.

However, due to the history of MediaTek chipsets being used in clone devices, ‘China phones’ also brings about a negative connotation, especially in countries where devices by OEMs such as Samsung and Apple are readily available. In fact, most Chinese devices nowadays also look a lot like mainstream flagships. As a Ulefone Be Touch 2 user, many have mistaken the device for an iPhone 6. MediaTek has also a history of having Qualcomm as their main and strongest competitor. Both MediaTek and Qualcomm have made videos suggesting that the other brand’s chipsets are either not consistent, or gimmicky. This may change how the public views either company’s products, depending on which they believe in more. However, as of writing, it seems like Qualcomm is following in MediaTek’s footsteps, as they too have begun adding cores to their chipsets, albeit in a big.LITTLE fashion instead of MediaTek’s all-running-at-once approach. This may have caused a little bit of controversy when it was done. Qualcomm though, seems to still have the leading edge with higher performing GPUs and much higher clock speeds, thus allowing for their popularity over MediaTek.

Fake specifications have also been plaguing MediaTek devices for some time. Due to the openness of MediaTek chipsets, the IMEI and MAC addresses can be freely changed by any user of such devices. Similarly, simple build.prop and kernel level modifications will mean that specifications such as Android version, camera resolution, and even the chipset can be easily falsified by anyone producing such devices. Fake sensors that don’t work have also been found in devices, such as the Elephone P2000, that has a fake gyroscope that uses the magnetic sensor (it didn’t go well and they removed it from future ROM versions). This gives the public a general sense of insecurity when purchasing MediaTek devices, as they very well may be purchasing a device that has completely different specifications, whether better or worse.

As the Chinese market for smartphones grow, devices running MediaTek chipsets may gain popularity, with also devices such as the UBIK Uno gaining popularity, the public perception of MediaTek may just go from being just clone devices to devices that perform well. However, OEMs have to play a part too in bringing up the image of both themselves and MediaTek, as they depend on MediaTek largely for their chipsets.

MediaTek vs. GPL

Elephone P6000 Source Code

Typical leaked source code format – a Linux kernel and MediaTek proprietaries

As a tech enthusiast and a huge fan of MediaTek, I’ve always been looking at MediaTek’s products and how they operate. One big thing that concerns MediaTek is how they constantly refuse to release the kernel source code for their chipsets. This is of course a clear violation of GPL, and many petitions have been launched to get MediaTek to release their source code to no avail. According to MediaTek and some OEMs, MediaTek requires OEMs to pay a fee and sign a confidentiality document to obtain the source code for a single Android version, which means that devices cannot be readily upgraded unless the OEMs purchase yet another copy of the source code built for a later Android version. Some OEMs even claim that they do not have the source code at all!

Such a problem is seen in Ulefone’s recent Be Touch 2 saga, where it was found to be running Android 5.0, but displayed as 5.1 instead. Some people have found out that Ulefone did not have the Android 5.1 source code, as they did not obtain it from MediaTek themselves. Some OEMs also hire companies such as AGold to build the source code for them, thus leading to multiple devices having almost the exact same UI modifications, or even the exact same bugs. There have also been multiple leaks of MediaTek’s source code by various OEMs, but whether deliberate or not these source code are usually incomplete or hard to build for, as they are device specific right out of the box. However, these leaked source code have also contributed a lot to the development of various custom ROMs and UIs for these MediaTek devices.

Clearly, this business model is not working out well, but as MediaTek’s goal is to sell cheap chipsets for budget devices, it will mean a compromise in the development department, as if source code is released, a large influx of developers will start building custom ROMs for the MediaTek devices out there, meaning that MediaTek’s income made from selling source code is void, as developers on forums such as XDA can readily build newer versions of Android for the devices themselves instead of letting the OEMs buy the source code from MediaTek and build it there. However, it can also be argued that if the source code for the chipsets are released, the active communal development of custom ROMs will mean that more people will be buying devices with MediaTek chipsets, as they will get to try out the latest features in ROMs such as CyanogenMod and AOKP.

What Now?

A screenshot showing the Elephone Forum's P7000 service section

A screenshot showing the Elephone Forum’s P7000 service section

As the Chinese smartphone market continues to grow, and with Chinese OEMs expanding worldwide, it will be no surprise that MediaTek devices will also get out there. OEMs like Elephone, uleFone, and Meizu are no doubt the biggest rising Chinese OEMs in the market right now, with Android Headlines, Android Authority, and even XDA TV reviewing their devices. While the problems with software continue, the problems with hardware will also continue. Currently, recent MediaTek devices have been facing slews of problems due to OEMs cutting costs on the parts used to produce the devices. Even bigger OEMs like Elephone and uleFone have come under fire for their recent devices for having huge problems that affect daily usage. Without proper source code released to the public, these OEMs’ devices will never receive stable custom ROMs and UIs, bugs and security risks like Stagefright cannot be patched, and users will not be satisfied.

MediaTek will need to do something about this, as their devices are expanding worldwide at a rapid pace. If they do not do anything, they may just gain a general negative reception of their devices, as evident from the many Facebook groups and BBS forums. The OEMs using MediaTek chipsets are also gaining the negative reception, and OEMs being the largest source of income to MediaTek means that if the OEMs do not sell, they do not earn.

What’s Next

MediaTek will still receive competition from flagship device chipset producer Qualcomm, and with Qualcomm devices being the leading ones in the market now, MediaTek devices may never gain proper recognition, even for the good ones. However, things may be changing quickly.

Not too long ago, MediaTek announced and released their 64-bit chipsets to the public – the MT6732, MT6735, MT6752, and MT6753. These chipsets offer 4G LTE, and in the MT6735 and MT6753’s cases, World-Mode LTE. What’s interesting this time is that the MT6735 and MT6753’s source code has been released by 2 OEMS thus far: Elephone and Blackview. Whether this is a move by MediaTek or by the OEMs themselves is not yet known, but it is something that was definitely unexpected.

MediaTek has also announced their newest line of flagship chipsets, the Helio X10 and X20. Many OEMs have already begun using the X10 in their devices, such as the LeTV S1 and Meizu MX5. It is not known what devices in the future will use the X20, but Elephone should have the P9000 running it. Whether X10 and X20 source code will be released is also a mystery.

Conclusion

MediaTek definitely needs to work more closely with OEMs to produce better devices. While the better ones like Ubik UNO are readily available, these are not devices you can simply pick off an online shop or at a store. They are usually difficult to obtain, either through time constrains or due to sale periods. As MediaTek continues to work towards high end budget devices, they also need to consider the end users of the devices, either by pressurizing the OEMs to update their devices or even releasing their source code to the Android community. Despite all the problems though, MediaTek is definitely expanding really rapidly, not just into the Asian market, but internationally. That is something MediaTek should be praised for.

What do you think? Will MediaTek devices ever gain international media coverage and attention? Leave a comment below to let us know!

 

Images: Wikipedia

  • Lars Cleghorn

    excellent article Justin aka “HexParanoia” over at china-devices..am glad i read it…also may i ask are mediatek not also controlled by the chinese government hence one of the reasons why they do not comply to the GPL and/or rarely release their source code…also some western OEM’s now are using mediatek chipset’s like LG and HTC…i do think that you are correct when you mention how much better the china phone market could become if they did fully allow the release of their source code to developers