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What to expect from the next generation of Android phone processors

From Qualcomm and Samsung to MediaTek and HUAWEI, here's what we're expecting from processors in 2021.

Published onMay 31, 2020

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra home screen against metal door

Arm has revealed its latest crop of CPUs and GPUs, set to be used in Android phone processors later this year and in 2021. From Qualcomm and HUAWEI to Samsung and MediaTek, we’re expecting all the major silicon players to use the new tech.

Speaking of these chip companies, what should we expect from them and the mobile SoC industry at large next year?

A massive leap in CPU power (for some)

Arm Cortex X1

The next generation of Android processors could see the biggest CPU performance leap in quite some time, as the new Cortex-X1 Arm CPU prioritizes power over efficiency. This strategy means you can expect a power increase of up to 30% compared to the Cortex-A77 used in Qualcomm, Samsung, and MediaTek’s flagship chipsets. In fact, the Cortex-X1 is expected to be up to 23% more powerful than the Cortex-A78, announced alongside the X1.

Arm has stated that the Cortex-X1 might only be available to specific chipset makers, meaning some chip brands might be left without the hefty CPU. So expect a rather uneven playing field among Android phones if for example, Qualcomm gets access to this Arm CPU but Samsung or MediaTek don’t.

What to expect from GPUs in 2021

Arm Mali G78

Arm’s Mali-G78 GPU is a modest upgrade over the Mali-G77 seen in Samsung and MediaTek’s high-end chips. So truth be told, mobile gamers might not see a major real-world difference between the two GPUs.

This puts Arm in a rather interesting situation in 2021, especially in light of Samsung’s decision to work with AMD on smartphone GPUs. Back in July last year, Samsung said the new GPU tech will be implemented in products that launch “two years down the road,” which means it’s eyeing a 2021 launch date.

AMD hints at how RDNA could beat Qualcomm's Adreno GPU

Combine Samsung and AMD’s partnership with Qualcomm’s traditionally beefy Adreno graphics, and it seems like Arm GPUs aren’t exactly hot property right now at the high end.

In saying so, the company’s Mali-G68 is the first Arm GPU in an upper mid-range family, sharing the same features as the Mali-G78 and slotting in above the Mali-G5X series. We’ve previously seen the likes of Xiaomi use a flagship Arm GPU (albeit with four cores) to great effect in the Redmi Note 8 Pro. So hopefully the G68 bring even more graphical grunt to mid-range phones.

GPUs are more important than ever in the age of high refresh rate screens, and we’re also starting to see even $200 to $300 phones offer 90Hz or 120Hz displays. High refresh rates don’t mean much if the GPU struggles to keep up, so that’s another reason why we’re glad to see the Mali-G68 plug the gap between budget and flagship mobile processors.

A switch to more efficient designs

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 in plastic case
David Imel / Android Authority

The manufacturing process used to make each chipset (measured in nanometers) is another important factor, with smaller designs equaling less power consumption. We’ve seen top-end mobile processors shrink from 28nm designs in early 2014, all the way to 7nm right now.

High-end Android phone processors are due for a switch to even smaller 5nm designs in 2021, and we’re expecting major players to all hop aboard this bandwagon. But mid-range chips usually lag behind in this regard, so they might offer 7nm or slightly bigger designs for a while yet.

New CPUs also tend to offer efficiency improvements, and Arm’s Cortex-A55 is the lightweight CPU of choice for all silicon makers, being paired with more powerful CPUs. The Cortex-A55 is long in the tooth though, having first been revealed in 2017. Unfortunately, Arm hasn’t revealed a successor to it yet, which is disappointing as it’s probably more efficient to use the newer heavyweight cores for many tasks instead. Hopefully we see a successor next year, as it could provide a major upgrade for $100 to $150 phones.

What about 5G?

The Snapdragon 765 series processor for Android phones.

The shift to 5G brought with it a few aches and pains, and power consumption is one of these issues. Fortunately, the aforementioned shift to 5nm designs means new 5G chipsets will consume less power.

We’re also expecting to see the likes of Qualcomm adopt integrated modems in their flagship chipsets, enabling notable efficiency gains as well. And when combined with the switch to 5nm designs, we can expect next year’s 5G flagships to be kinder on battery life than this year’s devices.

Qualcomm’s latest X60 modem also brings a number of enhancements, such as 5G Voice-over-NR capabilities, and improved carrier aggregation for better speed and stability. The US chip giant is also bringing smaller mmWave modules to smartphones in 2021, with smaller components meaning more room for (you guessed it) bigger batteries.

Qualcomm’s rival MediaTek is also poised to improve its 5G capabilities in the future. The company still doesn’t support mmWave just yet, but previously told Android Authority that it was working on a solution.

Connectivity to get upgrades

Android Bluetooth Notification Menu Icon

Wi-Fi 6 has come to a variety of phones in 2019 and 2020, as some of the latest high-end and upper-mid range processors sport the standard. We’ve even seen the tech come to the budget-focused Snapdragon 460 chipset, although phones with that chip are only due closer to the end of the year.

Just when more chipsets and phones adopt Wi-Fi 6, we’ve got Wi-Fi 6E entering the fray. Don’t expect much faster speeds, but it should ease congestion and result in reduced latency. The first phones with Wi-Fi 6E are dependent on processor support, so we’ll need to wait and see if upcoming Snapdragon, Dimensity, and Kirin chips gain this feature.

In saying so, Qualcomm announced Wi-Fi 6E support in its new FastConnect 6700 and 6900 connectivity suites. FastConnect is Qualcomm’s brand name for the wireless connectivity components in its recent Snapdragon chips, so this means we can definitely expect Wi-Fi 6E in its upcoming premium mobile processors.

Read: What is Wi-Fi 6E and unlicensed 6GHz spectrum?

Bluetooth is another important connectivity feature and many high-end chipsets support Bluetooth 5.1, with some upper-mid range SoCs grabbing this feature too. However, we’ve already seen the first processor packing Bluetooth 5.2 support in the Snapdragon 768G, with Qualcomm later adding that Bluetooth 5.2 was coming to the aforementioned FastConnect suites.

Bluetooth 5.2 brings enhancements like Low Energy Audio (LE Audio) for more power-efficient wireless audio, Audio Broadcast support as well as the LC3 codec. Again, this will require new SoCs if you want in on this action. But the new standard means you’re getting better audio quality and more reliable connections than relying on proprietary AptX connectivity, so it’s definitely worth the wait.

Machine learning in 2021

MediaTek AI bannerhead

It seems like every major chip manufacturer has a neural processor of some kind in 2020, with HUAWEI, MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung all sporting NPUs, APUs, or AI accelerators. We’ve seen virtually all flagship Android processors offer AI silicon, while brands have also moved to bring this hardware to the mid-tier.

However, one trend we’ve noticed is that chipset makers aren’t bringing machine learning hardware to low-end processors right now. We aren’t expecting to see this change in 2021, as CPU and GPU advancements mean many machine learning tasks can be run at a brisk pace without a dedicated neural processor. Furthermore, CPU and GPU upgrades also mean that machine learning tasks aren’t as big a drain on the battery as they used to be.

Nevertheless, as smartphone brands keep pushing the envelope with offline inference tasks like Live Caption, augmented reality, and ultra high-resolution processing, we expect more chips to offer dedicated silicon.

What does this all mean for Samsung Exynos?

Samsung Exynos 990

The Exynos 990 garnered a ton of negative attention due to the real and perceived gap between it and the Snapdragon 865 chipset. But there’s reason to believe that 2021 will be a rebuilding phase for Samsung’s chipmaking unit.

Related: Ditching custom CPUs is the right call for Samsung’s Exynos

Aside from the aforementioned partnership with AMD for graphics, Samsung’s CPU efforts have also been shaken up. The firm’s Austin custom CPU unit was shut down late last year, which means future Samsung CPUs are almost 100% guaranteed to use Arm Cortex technology.

It seems like a good time for Samsung to drop its own CPUs in favor of Arm CPUs, as the Cortex-X1 seems to have a similar performance-focused philosophy to the Korean brand’s CPUs. We don’t know if we’ll see the first Samsung Exynos chipset with AMD graphics in 2021, but you might want to keep your expectations in check for the first product. After all, this is AMD’s first foray into modern smartphone GPUs.

Where do these developments leave HUAWEI?

HUAWEI P40 Pro HUAWEI logo boot screen

Huawei’s HiSilicon division has been a saving grace ever since the HUAWEI ban kicked in, giving the manufacturer in-house chip manufacturing capabilities. And this was vitally important with Qualcomm not being allowed to supply the firm, as HiSilicon processors helped to address this gap.

Unfortunately, Washington’s draconian decision to now cut HUAWEI off from its chip producers means the firm is in dire straits as far as Android processor supply is concerned. The Chinese brand said that it had been building a stockpile of chipsets, and the new US amendment still apparently allows for some chips currently in production to be shipped to HUAWEI. But this will significantly affect the company’s ability to develop the latest and greatest technology. What’s the point of designing a chip if your chip producer can’t actually manufacture it for you?

HUAWEI P40 Pro review: Refinement done right
HUAWEI P40 Pro Rear housing shine

One possibility is that HUAWEI turns to alternative chip producers like Samsung or smaller foundries in China. But this will be contingent on these producers not using a significant amount of US know-how to make processors. However, it’s believed HUAWEI has turned to Chinese foundry SMIC to produce some chips. But these are 14nm designs rather than anything close to 7nm seen on current flagship SoCs.

Another deciding factor for HUAWEI’s 2021 aspirations is its relationship with silicon designer Arm, as the Chinese brand uses Arm CPUs and GPUs in all its in-house processors. At the time the US trade ban was initiated in May 2019, Arm said that it was complying with the regulations. But the chip designer was then quoted as saying in October 2019 that HUAWEI has access to next-generation technology.

The latest Arm CPUs and GPUs are clearly a mix of evolution and revolution for the company, with the Cortex-A78 and Mali-G78 being in the former camp. Meanwhile, the Cortex-X1 and Mali-G68 represent new ventures for the Android processor landscape. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for 2021.

Between HUAWEI’s silicon troubles, Samsung ditching custom CPUs and adopting AMD GPUs, and maturing 5G technology, 2021 is clearly shaping up to be a big year for the industry.

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