Gone are the days when a mobile phone was judged by its design. In the past, no one really cared about the speed of the interface or the number of pixels in the display, a phone was popular because of the brand and the design. Skip to the present and the mobile phone industry (tablets included) is actually competing with the PC market. Companies have always talked about how the mobile phone is like a computer in your pocket and looking at the latest trend of smartphones, that line is starting to blur. Naturally, just like any computer, the CPU is the first to go through major changes since at the end of the day, your camera, screen resolution, apps and OS can only improve if the CPU gets more powerful.
Smartphones have gone from single-core to dual-core and now quad-core and it’s only going to keep increasing. With companies throwing around terms like Snapdragon, Tegra 3, Mali-400, Cortex-A9, etc., it’s a daunting task to keep up with the different CPUs and chipsets in the market, even for us! You’ve heard the terms SoC being used very often in spec sheets and reviews, so what is it?
What is a SoC?
SoC is short for System on a Chip, an integrated circuit that combines all the primary components of a computer into a single chip. Think of your CPU, graphics card, memory controller and other components all rolled into a single chip, that’s essentially an SoC. This way, handset manufactures can simply drop this chip in their device and reap the benefits of the chipset straight away, rather than having to implement the CPU, GPU, etc. manually. Below, we have two popular SoCs, the first being an Nvidia Tegra 3 and the second, a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 SoC.
What goes on inside an SoC
Notice that Nvidia’s SoC only features the GPU, memory controller and video out streams whereas Qualcomm has managed to package all of that as well as the wireless radios like GPS, Wi-Fi, LTE, etc as well in that single chip. This is because the Qualcomm uses a smaller fabrication process (28nm) for the S4 chip allowing them to add more components into a single piece of silicon. Nvidia on the other hand is still on the 40nm fabrication for Tegra 3 so that’s why they can’t cram in more than that without increasing the size of the chip.
ARM is where the heart is
Today, a majority of mobile phones, tablets, wireless routers, digital media players, hand-held gaming consoles and many computer peripherals are powered by an ARM microprocessor. Just like Intel and AMD, ARM is a 32-bit microprocessor originally created by Acorn Computers back in 1987. Since then, ARM has been the preferred microchip by any and all companies looking for a cheap and more importantly, low-powered chip for portable devices. ARM uses a completely different architecture as compared to Intel and AMD, who’ve stuck with the x86 architecture and hence, all three companies have happily co-existed. With Windows 8 all set to support ARM devices as well, that equation may soon change.
One chip to rule them all
Since the ARM architecture is licensable, companies can either obtain an architectural licence to design their own, customized CPU or simply choose from one of ARM’s ready-to-ship core designs. Popular core design from ARM include ARMv7, ARM9, ARM11, Coretex-A8, Cortex-A9 and the most recent, Cortex-A15. Companies like Nvidia, Texas Instruments, Samsung and Apple (to name a few) simply choose one of these designs and packages them along with a GPU and other components, into their own branded SoC. However, SoC manufacturers like Qualcomm prefer to design their own custom CPUs rather than go with the crowd. ‘Krait’ is the latest CPU, designed by Qualcomm and is used in their new Snapdragon S4 SoC.
What’s the deal on the different GPUs?
Unlike the CPU component in an SoC that’s primarily supplied by ARM, the graphics portion is manufactured by multiple vendors which gives companies the flexibility to pick and choose which GPU goes best with the CPU in their SoC. While back in the day, the primary job of the graphics card was rendering 3D images and displaying them on the screen, today GPUs are used for much more than just playing games and are as crucial as the CPU, if not more. Today’s operating systems like Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich rely heavily on the GPU since the interface and all the animations are rendered on the graphics chip, which is how you’re able to get the buttery smooth transition effects. It also comes in handy when watching HD videos. Just like its PC component, a graphics chip essentially has more cores than a CPU thereby allowing it distribute the load better and leaving the CPU free for other tasks. Take Nvidia’s Tegra 3 for instance, this SoC packs in 12 GPU cores. Below are some of the most popular vendors for GPUs.
HD gaming is here to stay
Mali is a series of GPUs produced by ARM. Unlike other GPUs though, the Mali chip doesn’t actually have any display controller built-in to dive the LCD panel. Instead, it’s just a pure 3D engine that does the job of rendering graphics into memory. The most popular chip is the Mali-400 MP, a quad-core GPU that’s used in plenty of SoCs like Samsung’s Exynos and ST-Ericsson’s NovaThor.
Previously known as Imageon, ATI developed this line of media processors back in 2002 for handheld and mobile devices. It later came to be known as AMD Imageon when AMD bought ATI in late 2006. After some company restructuring, AMD officially discontinued this line of mobile media chips in 2008 only to be bought by Qualcomm later that year for $64 million. After Qualcomm stepped in, they changed the branding to Adreno since AMD retained the Imageon title. Adreno has since been used in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoCs, their most popular ones being the Adreno 205, Adreno 220 and the most recent, Adreno 225.
PowerVR is a division of Imagination Technologies that started out making graphics solutions for desktop PC market but over the years, dropped out and have since been making low powered media chips for mobile devices. PowerVR GPUs aren’t manufactured by PowerVR themselves but instead, they licence their design and patents to other companies like Texas Instruments, Intel, Samsung, Apple, etc. Their PowerVR SGX series have been quite popular and featured in many prime-time commercial products.
The famous Tegra 3 SoC
The name Geforce is synonymous with graphics cards ever since they introduced it, way back in 1999. NVidia developed these graphics chips in-house and till now, only feature in their own Tegra SoC. Their latest Tegra 3 SoC ups the ante by offering a 12-core GPU making it roughly three times more powerful than its predecessor.
Putting it all together
So we’ve talked about what SoCs actually are and the different CPUs and GPUs that are out there in the market. Now, it’s time to put it all together and look at some of the popular SoCs in the market along with their accompanying phones. This is a massive list so to make sense out of it all; we’ve only listed the most common chipsets used in phones that are relevant to us. You’ll want to click the image below to get a better look.
A quick comparision of the popular chipsets in the market
Now that you know which SoC sits in your phone, it’s time to take a look at where it stands amongst the competition. For this, we turn to AnTuTu, a very popular benchmarking program for Android handsets that gives you a rough idea of how powerful a smartphone is. This is just a synthetic benchmark though but like PCMark Vantage for the PC, it gives you a fair idea of where your handset stands. Not all phones are created equal so there is a very good chance that your model will have a slightly different score, whcih is perfectly normal.
A rough idea of where these devices stand in terms of performance
The bottom line
We really hope that this article cleared out most of the doubts and questions you’ve had about mobile chipsets. Companies will often try and market their SoCs with fancy names and slogans but it's important to look past that when you’re making your buying decision. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell the exact details of which CPU or GPU is used in the SoC directly from the box since they don’t mention it usually so the only way to check is to do a little digging online. We’ve also seen from AnTuTu and our SoC chart that not all 1GHz phones are created equal. While they may look the same on the face of it, one could have a faster GPU, thereby giving you better multimedia performance. We keep saying this time and time again but do a little homework before heading out to the shops with your shopping list; it goes a long way in getting the best for your money.
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