With the first Snapdragon 600 powered handsets arriving on the scene, it's about time that we had a look at what exactly we can expect from Qualcomm's newest line-up of processors. The previous generation of S4 chips powered most of the high-end devices we've seem recently, but can Qualcomm continue its success with its next generation line-up of chips?
I tend to think of the Snapdragon 600 as a half step between the S4 series and the next generation. It's clearly a more powerful processor when you look at the hardware specs, but it's missing a few of the features which Qualcomm and other rival tech companies are planning to bring to their high-end chips over the coming year. But we'll cover more of that later, for now let's breakout the Snapdragon 600.
The new Krait 300 cores are sticking with the same architecture as the ones used in the S4 Pro, but Qualcomm has made some improvements, not least to the base clock speed. The S4 Pro peaked at a maximum of 1.7Ghz, whereas the Snapdragon 600 can be clocked up to 1.9Ghz, a 12% performance improvement straight away.
Qualcomm has also been working on making efficiencies in the Krait core's design; a hardware data prefetcher to quickly bring data to the L2 cache, improved out of order execution, and forwarding between pipelines are just some of the supposed improvements to the Krait 300 CPU. Estimates suggest that these improvements and the boosted clock speed could work out at between a 20-30% total performance improvement over the older generation CPU, which is fairly decent.
Graphics wise, the Snapdragon 600 uses the same Adreno 320 GPU from the older S4 Pro chip, with the only improvements coming from a slightly higher clock speed. This certainly isn't keeping up with the major GPU performance improvements we're looking at with Nvidia's Tegra 4 or Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa.
Really, the Snapdragon 600 is the same chip as the S4 Pro, it still has built-in LTE integration and uses the same processing hardware with just a few minor tweaks. That being said, the S4 Pro was already faster than the competition, handsets like the Xperia Z are already ahead of Exynos 4 and Tegra 3 powered smartphones.
So whilst Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 isn't a massive leap over the S4 Pro, like Tegra 3 to Tegra 4 will be for example, it's still going to be one of the fastest chips on the market for the foreseeable future.
Qualcomm already looks to be in good shape with the Snapdragon 600 but it also has another secret weapon, the Snapdragon 800. Exact details about the chip are still somewhat vague, but we do know that the Krait 400 CPUs are further improving on the architecture used in the S4 series and Snapdragon 600.
The Krait 400s can be clocked up to an impressive 2.3Ghz, will be made using a new 28nm Higk-K+ metal gate process for optimised power performance, and will have an improved memory interface. The clock speed alone will provide a 35% peak performance improvement over the already speed Snapdragon 600. The expected lower latency to memory, faster L2 cache, and other architecture tweaks could push this improvement percentage closer to 50%, which would make the Snapdragon 800 an unbelievably fast chip.
But this extra power won't necessarily come at the expense of energy consumption. As I already mentioned, the new manufacturing process employed by chip manufacturer TSMC will improve the overall power efficiency of the chip. Adding in Qualcomm's unique design choice to opt for asymmetrical CPU cores means that power is assigned as and when needed, keeping current draw to a minimum when performing undemanding tasks like web browsing.
Qualcomm tells us that the Adreno 330 will offer roughly 50% more graphics performance over the Adreno 320, and will perform almost twice as well as the Adreno 320 when it comes to GPGPU computing. Compute performance is helpful for image and video post processing effects, and allows applications to make better use of the graphics chip to help with processing. Take a look at some the graphical quality offered in the Snapdragon 800 in the video below.
The Adreno 330 is rumoured to be clocked up to 450Mhz, 50Mhz higher than the 320, and has a faster pixel fill rate as well. Unfortunately exact specifications for the Adreno 330 are virtually impossible to confirm, so at this point we'll just have to take Qualcomm's word for it. But if Qualcomm is being economical with the numbers then the GPU could be the weak link, as the Tegra 4 benchmarks and Exynos 5 Octa's SGXMP3 GPUs leave the Adreno 320 in the dust.
Whilst we are on the subject of graphics and gaming, another important yet sometimes overlooked aspect is support for graphics APIs. These are the building blocks of graphics software, and support for the latest APIs ensures that your device can make use of the most up to date optimizations and graphical effects.
Qualcomm has already confirmed certification for OpenGL ES 3.0, and the Snapdragon 600 and 800 will also support OpenCL 1.2e, DirectX 9.3, and WebGL 1.0, as well as older versions of OpenGL ES. Snapdragon 600 and 800 powered handsets should definitely be on the Android gamer's radar, providing that the gaming performance proves to be up to scratch.
Qualcomm is also promising support for 4k resolution displays and 4k video decoding and encoding, just like Nvidia's Tegra 4. Of course, working at such a high resolution means that the Snapdragon 800 is likely packing some serious horsepower in the graphics department.
It's also an interesting prospect for smartphone cameras and video recorders; we could be capturing even higher quality media if smartphone manufacturers decide to make use of the highest resolution image sensors. The Snapdragon 800 will support pictures up to 55 Megapixels, will be able to use stereoscopic 3D, and dual image capture.
The biggest selling factor for Qualcomm's chips, besides performance, is the built in LTE modem. This is no-doubt one of the reason why Samsung has opted for a Qualcomm chip in the US version Galaxy S4. But not being content with its current modems, Qualcomm is going to include a new technology called Carrier Aggregation in the Snapdragon 800. This advanced data connection combines a carrier's radio channels across non-adjacent bands to increase potential download speeds to a blistering 145Mbps.
I suppose you could think of this as parallel streaming from different network bands to increase your overall bandwidth. The performance of this technology will be highly dependent on your network coverage, so I expect real world applications to be slower. Still, it's a great idea which could give Qualcomm yet another advantage over its competitors.
Previous Snapdragon chips feature Quick Charge technology, which improves the charge time of your smartphone. The Snapdragon 800 SoC will ship with Quick Charge 2.0, which can charge up to 75% faster than products without Quick Charge technology. According to Qualcomm's tests this means that you can fully charge your tablet in less than three hours.
The final piece of technology that I'm going to talk about is the Voice Activation feature that Qualcomm is also planning to pack into the Snapdragon 800. This feature integrates an always-on, low-power listening device into the Snapdragon SoC, allowing the user to wake up their phone or tablet by uttering a voice command. This integrated audio solution enables the chip to respond to user commands without the need for the main processor to be on, which will make substantial battery savings compared with basing this technology in software using the main CPU.
It's tough to find faults with Qualcomm's road-map. The Snapdragon 600 is already looking to be a great chip based on the performance results we've seen so far, and if the Snapdragon 800 can live up to the rumors then Qualcomm are going to be feeling pretty comfortable.
We'll have to wait and see exactly how these chips stack up with the competition in the coming months, but until then the Snapdragon 600 is the chip to beat.