System on a chip guide – Autumn 2014
2014 has been a bit of a slow year for mobile processor releases. Qualcomm has ticked over a few new Snapdragon processors over the past year, but we haven’t seen any big performance improvements in quite a while. The industry and Android consumers alike are waiting on the hop over to ARM’s 64-bit ARMv8 architecture. New hardware and the introduction of Android L later this year will finally mark its arrival.
Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, and Nvidia all have new processors lined-up for release in late 2014 / early 2015, so here is everything you need to know about the upcoming chips.
Qualcomm’s 64-bit Snapdragons
We will start with the most prevalent mobile system on a chip manufacturer – Qualcomm.
The Snapdragon 800 series of processors has been the staple of premium smartphone manufacturers for the past year, but revisions like the Snapdragon 801 and 805 have not brought much in the way of performance improvements. Although we have begun to see a few devices make use of Qualcomm’s new Adreno 420 GPU, found in the Snapdragon 805, the SoC is still mainly used for its lightning fast 300mbps LTE-A download capabilities and isn’t a huge improvement over the existing range.
Instead, most consumers are looking forward to the first 64-bit ARMv8 SoCs, which will appear in the company’s Snapdragon 410, 610, and 615 SoCs that are heading to market later this year. However, these processors aren’t going to be the company’s most premium 64-bit SoC designs. Those will be coming later on next year in the form of the Snapdragon 808 and 810.
In terms of performance then, we again aren’t going to see a big step forward from Qualcomm this year. The 410, 610, and 615 are instead all based on ARM’s Cortex-A53 CPU cores, which is the successor to the more energy efficient Cortex-A9, rather than the more powerful Cortex-A15. According to ARM, we can expect performance to be somewhere in the range of the existing Cortex-A9, which was found in a quad-core configuration in the Galaxy Note 2’s Exynos 4412 SoC. However, energy efficiency will be much higher, allowing developers like Qualcomm to add in additional cores for more peak performance without crippling battery life.
Some in this new line-up of Qualcomm processors will also be using the company’s new Adreno 400 series GPUs, which will offer up additional graphics performance and further energy efficiencies. Here’s a breakdown of exactly what you can find in each of the upcoming Snapdragons and how they compare with the current flagships.
|CPU||4x Krait 400||4x Krait 450||4x Cortex-A53||4x Cortex-A53||8x Cortex-A53|
|CPU Clock||2450 MHz||2700 MHz||1400 MHz||1700 MHz||4x 1700 MHz, 4x 1000 MHz|
|GPU||Adreno 330||Adreno 420||Adreno 306||Adreno 405||Adreno 405|
|LTE-A Speeds||Cat 4, 150Mbps||Cat 6, 300Mbps||Cat 4, 150Mbps||Cat 4, 150Mbps||Cat 4, 150Mbps|
As you can tell from the table, the new 600 series Snapdragons won’t quite match the current crop of premium Snapdragon processors in every regard. Performance of the 410 and 610 won’t keep up with the current 801 or newer 805, but the octa-core nature of the 615 could provide a little extra performance in heavily multi-threaded environments. The Adreno 405 is also not expected to match the GPU performance of the existing Adreno 330. We will have to wait for the new 800 series Qualcomm SoCs to see graphics performance that exceeds the current standard.
However, energy efficiency will be improved across the board with Qualcomm’s upcoming chips, leading to devices with enough power for most situations and improved longevity, as well as improved LTE speeds for mid-range handsets.
Looking further into 2015, and the arrival of the 20nm Snapdragon 808 and 810, CPU performance will match, and likely exceed the current processors on the market with the introduction of the Cortex-A57 – ARM’s successor to the commonly used high-performance Cortex-A15. The graphics capabilities of the Adreno 418 and 430 also offer up performance at and slightly beyond the current generation of Adreno GPUs. Furthermore, the 808 and 810 offer improved support for higher resolution displays and camera modules, and mark the first Qualcomm SoCs to reach the 20nm processing node.
The important thing to take away here is that the move to new 64-bit Qualcomm processors isn’t going to lead to an instantaneous jump in performance. The mid-range products are heading our way first, and they won’t blow current devices out of the water. Don’t worry if you just picked up a new flagship. Instead, new highs in the Qualcomm performance table are likely to come in 2015, just in time for the next batch of flagship smartphones.
With Qualcomm’s roadmap showing a gradual buildup to its more premium products, the end of this year could spell a big opportunity for MediaTek to make an impact on the broader smartphone market.
The company attempted to make its mark earlier in the year with the octa-core MT6592, but the Cortex-A7 design failed to match the raw performance of heftier quad-core processors, and the lack of integrated LTE made it a poor choice for premium devices. However, MediaTek has already announced an improved octa-core design and two ARMv8 Cortex-A53 based SoCs for later this year, all with LTE integration.
|CPU||8x Cortex-A7||4x Cortex-A17, 4x Cortex-A7||4x Cortex-A53||8x Cortex-A53|
|CPU Clock||1700/2000 MHz||4x 2500 MHz, 4x 1700 MHz||1500 MHz||up to 2200 MHz|
|GPU||Mali-450 MP||PowerVR G6200||Mali-T760||PowerVR G6200|
|LTE-A Speeds||n/a||Cat 4, 150Mbps||Cat 4, 150Mbps||Cat 4, 150Mbps|
The MT6595 makes use of four Cortex-A17 cores, which we haven’t seen a lot of before, combined with four energy efficient Cortex-A7s. Essentially, the A-17 is designed to offer up Cortex-A15 levels of performance, but with less energy consumption and a lower heat profile.
When it comes to MediaTek’s ARMv8 designs, the chips appears very similar to Qualcomm’s upcoming processors, at least on the CPU side of things. Looking at the GPU, the Mali-T760 is ARM’s new flagship performance GPU design, whilst the PowerVR G6200 is similar to the GPU found in the iPhone 5S. In terms of performance, the T-760 has been shown to outperform Qualcomm’s Adreno 420. These two GPUs should outpace the new Qualcomm 610 and 615 chips in graphics tasks, making MediaTek’s new line-up of SoCs a series contender in the first batch of 64-bit smartphones and tablets.
As well as performance improvements, MediaTek has been upping its game in the features department too. The company now offers integrated LTE options with its processors, with support for Category 4 150Mbps speeds. The company’s newest chips also support premium features like higher resolution displays, 480 fps slow motion video recording, and support for camera modules with a large megapixel count.
Although we aren’t yet sure which devices will be making use of MediaTek’s new line-up of processors, on paper the company is all set to compete with the premium mobile processor brands when 64-bit finally arrives.
Nvidia’s Denver CPU
Speaking of GPUs, the graphical powerhouse that is the Nvidia Tegra K1 has been on our radar for quite a while now. With 192 GPU “cores” taken directly from Nvidia’s desktop Kepler graphics architecture, Nvidia’s powerful SoC has promised us the best graphics performance in the business. We have seen it at the top of graphics benchmarks since it was announced, and the first products to use the chip have shown impressive graphics capabilities.
You are probably quite familiar with Nvidia’s existing “4-Plus-1” CPU setup, which uses a quad-core 2.2GHz ARM Cortex-A15 setup complete with a low power companion core for improved background energy efficiency. The first generation Tegra K1 has just begun to show up in devices like the Shield Tablet, Xiaomi MiPad, and a new range of Acer Chrombooks.
However, with other SoC developers moving over to 64-bit and new CPU architectures, the Tegra K1 already looks a little outdated. Fortunately Nvidia already announced that it has a 64-bit “Denver” CPU version of the Tegra K1 that should appear in mobile devices come the end of this year.
Unlike other SoC manufacturers, Nvidia’s 64-bit Denver CPU won’t be making use multiple Cortex-A53s, although the chip retains full compatibility with the ARMv8 architecture. Nvidia’s design opts for a higher level of performance per core, a la Intel, rather than going wide with a larger number of cores, like MediaTek and Qualcomm’s upcoming SoCs.
The Denver chip can be clocked up to 2.5 GHz, but it’s more than just the clock speed that will give Nvidia’s chip a per core performance boost. Nvidia’s own benchmarks, which we should be a little wary of, puts the Denver K1’s performance close to Intel’s Haswell Celeron 2955U.
Gaming, and other CPU intensive tasks, traditionally demand stronger single core performance, which the Cortex A53 doesn’t really have. The new Tegra K1 could really shine when it comes to gaming. However, there is a potential trade-off. The lack of cores could see the Denver CPU struggle with some multitasking and multi-threaded instances, and energy efficiency might not match the upcoming big.LITTLE mobile CPU designs from the other big vendors.
Most likely, the Denver Tegra K1 will find its way into tablets and Chromebooks, which have larger batteries, rather than smartphones. Rumors already have the chip pegged to the Nexus 8.
Samsung strong ARMs Exynos
Nvidia is not the only company looking to put out a higher performance CPU design this year. Samsung also has its own 64-bit octa-core Exynos 5433 heading to market.
From what we know so far, the Exynos 5433 will feature four Crotex-A53 cores accompanied by four high performance Cortex-A57 cores. This would give the SoC a higher peak performance than any of Qualcomm’s upcoming 64-bit 600 series processors, and we’ll have to see how well it competes with Nvidia’s Denver.
On the GPU side of things, the 5433 looks set to arrive with a high performance Mali-T760, the same GPU found in the MediaTek MT6732. Again, benchmarks have shown that Samsung’s upcoming SoC will leapfrog Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 for the top performance spot. Other features are expected to include support for QHD displays and an Intel Category 6 LTE chip, capable of 300Mbps data speeds.
On the smartphone side of things, Samsung also recently announced its Exynos 5430, which can already be found inside the Galaxy Alpha. This SoC has more in common with previous Exynos 5 designs. It features four 1.8GHz Cortex-A15 cores in a big.LITTLE configuration with four 1.3GHz Cortex-A7s and a Mali-T628 GPU. This is also the first mobile chip to reach the 20nm manufacturing node, and features Samsung’s own LTE Cat 6 Exynos Modem 303.
The latest Exynos processors keep Samsung near the top of the performance charts. However, as is typical for Samsung Exynos chips, it is likely that these SoCs won’t be widely available, and will instead likely only be found in certain regional models of its own devices. The Galaxy Note 4 is expected to be the first device to feature the Exynos 5433, which could launch early next month.
I guess we should mention Intel here, but there really isn’t a lot left on its product roadmap for this year. The company will be issuing a refresh to its Bay Trail tablet chips soon, but Cherry Trail now doesn’t look set to appear until mid-2015.
The company has its integrated 3G and LTE budget SoFIA chips on the way for mobile, but again we won’t be seeing these until 2015 either. On the plus side, Intel’s XMM 7160 LTE-A modem could be partnered up with its Z3580 (Moorefield) Atom mobile processors to offer a feature complete solution for mobile developers. Intel’s benchmarks for its mobile processors have been comparable to today’s high end Snapdragons, but until we get some products in our hands, Intel’s immediate roadmap is a little tougher to become excited about.
What can we expect?
Looking over the major players we can see that they will mostly be offering similar products as Android begins the transition over to 64-bit. Interestingly, MediaTek and Qualcomm look to be after the same mid and upper end of the market with their first batch of ARMv8 chips, whilst Nvidia and Samsung will be the companies with the highest performance 64-bit processors at the turn of 2015.
However, Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon 800 line-up will still be the bar to beat in the new year, and the company has already announced its more extensive roadmap for early/mid 2015. Qualcomm should have its own high performance 64-bit chips ready in time for the next generation of flagship smartphones.
Perhaps most importantly than just raw performance, we are finally seeing other competitors begin to match Qualcomm in terms of SoC features, including better DSP and camera support, graphics units capable of supporting higher resolution displays, and integrated LTE modems for faster data speeds. Whilst Qualcomm is bound to remain the biggest player in the mobile processor market in the near future, it looks like the company is in for some serious competition towards the end of this year.