MediaTek has had a fairly rocky reputation in the world of Android chipsets. The company was known for its lower-end and mid-range offerings for years, and its "flagship offering" Helio X series wasn't really seen as up to par. That led the company away from flagships for quite a long time, though two years ago had a surprising return to the premium segment with the Dimensity 9000. MediaTek went from being a smaller chipset maker with decent budget and mid-range offerings to the biggest chipset maker in the world by market share, and with its own actually flagship-quality chipset, too.
As a result, the story of MediaTek is an interesting one. There's a lot that's gone on behind the scenes, and there's a lot more to come as well as the company finds its solid footing for what feels like the first time ever. We sat down with Finbarr Moynihan and Brad Molen from MediaTek at this year's MWC to discuss the growth of the company and how it reinvigorated its flagship segment, along with what's to come in the future.
MediaTek wasn't always a flagship competitor
Talking about the future of MediaTek first requires knowing its past, as it hasn't always been focused on smartphones. It's a Taiwan-based semiconductor company, and its earliest chipsets were those built for the likes of DVD players, but in 2004, a couple of years after it was founded in 1997, MediaTek launched its mobile division. Since then, the company has grown massively. It dominated the mid-range segment for years, announcing its intentions to focus on that segment of the market in 2014 with its "Everyday Genius" tagline.
All while the company quickly grew its budget and mid-range dominance, it had significantly less-successful flagship business on the side. The Helio "X" series was one such series, but its performance was underwhelming at best and bad at worst. It was clear to MediaTek that something needed to change, and the Helio X30 was the last flagship MediaTek chipset before the company bowed out of that segment. Moynihan revealed that they had developed the Helio X40 internally at the time, but the "OEM landscape shifted" (referring to the proliferation of online-based brands such as OnePlus and Honor), and MediaTek had decided to "regroup and reoptimize the modem for the power and price points that were needed".
As Moynihan puts it, MediaTek has been a "phenomenally adaptable company" without room for ego or arrogance. Something clearly wasn't working, and one driving philosophy they had was that it wasn't about benchmarks, "but what a real user is going to experience in the real world". It's completely true, too, as the Google Pixel 7 Pro, for example, doesn't exactly score well on benchmarks, but is one of the smoothest and most consistent Android phones in use today.
The current state of MediaTek and beyond
MediaTek eventually released the Dimensity 9000, its first true flagship chipset in a number of years. It powered a number of China-only devices for a while, but interestingly, that didn't really happen by design. When I asked about why it took so long for a Dimensity 9000 series chip to reach the west (the first was the 9000+ in the Asus ROG Phone 6D Ultimate), Moynihan said that "there was nothing from the product side that would have prevented it." No company wanted to be the first to take the plunge, aside from Asus. The Dimensity 9000+ turned out to be one of the best chips released last year, going toe-to-toe with Qualcomm's own Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1.
Since then, the Dimensity 9200 has arrived, and it's likely devices will start to arrive in the west a whole lot quicker. MediaTek proved they "can deliver that kind of performance with the [Dimensity] 9000 [series]", and the Dimensity 9000+ has started to make an appearance in heavy-hitter devices like the Oppo Find N2 Flip. The Vivo X90 Pro has already been launched with the Dimensity 9200, and we expect that other devices will make use of it soon, too.
Looking to the future, Moynihan tells us that he believes MediaTek will "inevitably" use a 3nm fabrication process for its high-end chip offerings, but it's unclear how much that technology will trickle down past its highest-end products. As well, his expectation of penetrating the U.S. flagship market is similarly tempered. MediaTek has done well in its mid-range offerings in the U.S. thanks to devices like the Motorola Moto G Pure and the Samsung Galaxy A32, though he noted that while the company was "doing very well at taking market share in the US and moving up, I think the question is 'how far up is reasonable?'"
As a result, MediaTek has what could well be its biggest challenge ahead of it. The U.S. smartphone market is notoriously difficult to break into, and with the biggest flagship devices essentially only using Qualcomm chipsets, it would be hard for MediaTek to get a flagship SoC in that market. It's been a crazy few years for the Taiwanese semiconductor designer, and they've gone from a solid but mostly mid-tier designer to one of the best in the business in just a couple of short years and the largest in the world by market share.
To call it a phenomenally adaptable company sounds more than apt.