There’s no denying that smartphones are becoming pretty powerful; quad-core processors are now the standard in high-end handsets and clock speeds are creeping up into laptop territory as well. However, the one big problem that mobile technology still faces is the limitations imposed by running processors on a battery.
With the likes of the Exynos 5 Octa and Snapdragon 600 offering pretty much all the power you’ll need in a smartphone, the next big battleground is likely to be fought over power consumption. New architectures like big.LITTLE demonstrate that chip designers understand the problems associated with increasingly power hungry processors, but it’s hard to tell which chip manufacturer actually has the best energy efficiency.
Fortunately for us, ABI Research has conducted some tests which not only look at the peak performance of the current top of the line chips, but also the average and peak currents drawn under various conditions.
The test included some of the top of the line handsets and tablets using some of the best performing processors currently available on the market, the Intel Z2580 CloverTrail+-powered Lenovo K900 smartphone, Snapdragon 600 and Exynos 5 Octa versions of the Samsung Galaxy S4, the dual-core Exynos 5250 Nexus 10, and finally the Nexus 7 which utilises the Nvidia Tegra 3 chip. You can take a look at the results table below.We’re mostly interested in the CPU performance and current draw results from this test, as GPU performance is dependant on other chip manufacturers. Three of the processors scored roughly the same CPU result (around 5000) including the CloverTrail+ chip, the Exynos 5 Octa, and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600. The test pretty much matches the initial Lenovo K900 benchmark that we saw earlier this year.
Just looking at the base CPU score alone, the dual-core CloverTrail+ comes out on top by a couple of hundred points, followed by the four Krait 300 cores in the Snapdragon 600, and Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa chip, which houses four Cortex A15 and four A7 cores, following closely behind. But the real surprise can be seen if you glance over slightly to the right: the CloverTrail+ draws significantly less current than its competitors.
The average CPU drain on the Lenovo K900 was just 0.85 amps, whilst the supposedly energy efficient Exynos 5 Octa Galaxy S4 drew an average of 1.38 amps, and the Snapdragon 600 drew a massive 1.79 amps on average. Peak current draw is even more telling, 1.05 amps peak for the Z2580, 1.71 amps peak for the Octa, and 2.10 amps for the Snapdragon 600, making the CloverTrail+ not only the fastest but also the most energy efficient processor out of these current top of the line components.
ABI engineering Vice President Jim Mielke summed up the company’s findings:
The ARM architecture used by nearly all of Intel's competitors is well known for its low power performance but in bringing the processing power up closer to PC levels, the current drain has taken a significant hit.
The closest competitor to the current draw of the CloverTrail+ is the rather outdated Tegra 3, which uses four ARM Cortex A9 cores rather than the newer, and more power hungry, Cortex A15 cores found in the Exynos 5 processors. But the old Tegra 3 languishes really far behind in terms of performance, scoring only half as well as Intel’s processor.
It seems that Intel has finally managed to find the right balance of power and energy efficiency after some dubious performance results with its previous Atom chips. But we’re still waiting to see more handset manufacturers implement Intel’s processor technology.
BayTrail will be even better
With high-end smartphones pushing the performance and energy boundaries, Intel seems to have found the sweet spot. But if consumers continue to demand more performance, then Intel’s next line-up of BayTrail chips could provide real competition to ARM’s processors.
Intel is already promising significant performance and energy improvements over the current Saltwell cores used in its CloverTrail+ SoCs, which would put the Silvermont-based BayTrail even further ahead of the current top of the line offerings from Samsung and Qualcomm.
In fact, as the Exynos 5 Octa is designed to be Samsung’s flagship processor, the company could see itself falling significantly behind Intel in terms of raw performance for the first time in the smartphone business. Similarly, Qualcomm will have to rely on its upcoming Snapdragon 800 processor to compete with Intel’s next-gen chips, but we’re currently unsure exactly how well that chip will perform.
Similarly, with BayTrail set to be even more power efficient than CloverTrail+, ARM based processors are going to have to find significant improvements in energy efficiency in order to compete. The only thing holding CloverTrail+ back at the moment is the lack of an integrated LTE solution, which is an important feature for high-end markets. However, the new BayTrail Atom SoCs will be shipping with integrated LTE bfore 2014, which could see Intel finally get some decent market share in the mobile processor buesiness.
If Intel manages to capitalise on this growing gap in battery efficiency whilst offering top of the line performance and a fully integrated SoC, then I can definitely see consumers flocking to Intel-powered handsets to reap the benefits of improved battery life.