A Qualcomm Snapdragon render.

Huawei and Samsung are two of the only Android manufacturers regularly producing in-house processors. Everyone else turns to Qualcomm and MediaTek for their mobile chip needs.

The two companies have been the dominant third-party chipset providers for several years now, following the withdrawal of players like Texas Instruments, Intel, and ST-Ericsson’s NovaThor.

We’ve put together a handy primer on the MediaTek vs Qualcomm, covering their differences and reasons why a company would opt for one or the other.

CPU technology

The Snapdragon 845 chipset.

When it comes to the all-important CPUs, Qualcomm has a history of creating its own Kryo cores. Since 2017, however, the company has settled on semi-custom designs (dubbed Kryo Gold or Kryo Silver). These designs are based on standard Arm CPU cores, with a few tweaks for power consumption and performance.

Meanwhile, MediaTek uses standard Arm CPU cores for its processors, without modifying them to the same degree as Qualcomm.

Qualcomm uses the latest and greatest Arm CPU cores whenever they’re available, as is the case with the new Snapdragon 675 and more recently the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. Both of these chips use Arm’s bleeding-edge Cortex-A76 cores. MediaTek, on the other hand, has only recently switched to the Cortex-A75 core for the Helio P90. And as the name implies, the Cortex-A75 is an older (but still capable) CPU core.

The long and short of it is Qualcomm and MediaTek both use the same CPU cores, but Qualcomm tends to adopt new cores at a faster pace.

GPUs: Qualcomm’s secret weapon?

GPUs are Qualcomm’s biggest advantage, thanks to its secretive Adreno graphics technology. This was borne out of Qualcomm’s acquisition of AMD’s handheld graphics chip business (Adreno is an anagram of Radeon, AMD’s graphics brand).

The company’s Adreno GPUs recently trumped Arm’s Mali GPUs in benchmarks — just compare graphics benchmarks of the Qualcomm-powered Galaxy S9 and its Exynos-powered variant (which uses Arm GPU tech).

Manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei generally opt to simply use more Arm Mali GPU cores to reduce the gap to Qualcomm’s hardware.

Arm’s new Mali-G76 GPU is a big upgrade, in theory targeting laptop-class performance. But Qualcomm isn’t standing still, revealing the Adreno 640 GPU as part of the Snapdragon 855. It touts a 20 percent power boost over the Snapdragon 845’s GPU, but we’ll need to wait and see if phones with Arm’s latest GPU can offer a challenge.

MediaTek has taken to using Imagination Technologies’ GPUs in its new Helio P90 instead of Arm parts. The company is claiming a big graphical upgrade over its previous high-end chips, but time will tell whether this is the case.

Machine learning

A MediaTek Helio P60 sign.

Qualcomm has traditionally harnessed its Hexagon digital signal processor (DSP) for machine learning tasks in recent years. The DSP usually handles tasks related to audio, photography, and connectivity, but the company tuned the chip (along with its CPU and GPU) for machine learning.

The top-end Hexagon 685 DSP is available on the likes of the Snapdragon 845, Snapdragon 710, Snapdragon 670, and the Snapdragon 675. So tasks like image recognition and other forms of offline inference should get a boost on phones with these chips.

Read: Google in 2019 — All in on AI

But the company has also added a new Tensor Accelerator chip to its Snapdragon 855 flagship processor. The chipmaker claims that, thanks to this silicon and other upgrades, the new chipset delivers three times the AI performance of the Snapdragon 845.

MediaTek, on the other hand, has introduced a dedicated AI processing unit (APU) to mid-range phones with the launch of the Helio P60 chipset. The APU brings features like smart scene recognition, better facial recognition, and more to mid-range phones.

The Taiwanese firm’s new Helio P90 chipset looks like it’ll deliver even more AI power, thanks to the addition of an AI Accelerator chip and a Face Detection Engine. MediaTek is claiming 1,127GMACs of AI power for the new chipset, compared to the Snapdragon 710’s 614GMACs.

Developer support and updates

If you’re planning to flash a new ROM on your phone, Qualcomm-equipped phones have traditionally been the go-to option. MediaTek phones gained a poor reputation several years ago for developer support (or the lack thereof) compared to Qualcomm. The issue seems to revolve around the company’s policy for releasing source code, which isn’t as straightforward as the U.S. chipmaker. MediaTek has since told Android Authority that it would consider releasing source code to the public, but not in the near future.

MediaTek phones also have a reputation for tardy or missing system updates. Then again, scores of low-end brands have traditionally used their chips, and often lack the resources to update their phones in the first place. It’s not necessarily the chipmaker’s fault if a MediaTek-powered phone doesn’t get updated.

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The firm has taken steps to turn things around though, joining the GMS Express initiative a year ago, which requires shipping a more complete version of Android, plus several Google apps, to partners (rather than the bare minimum AOSP build). This has made some hope MediaTek partners will start bringing updates to consumers quicker.

Google’s Project Treble initiative should also result in faster updates for both Qualcomm and MediaTek devices. Project Treble effectively separates a phone’s hardware and software layers so that software (Android) updates won’t affect the hardware.

We’ve also seen Nokia/HMD deliver updates to some of its MediaTek-equipped phones, such as the Nokia 3, 3.1, and 5.1 Plus. The chipmaker clearly isn’t a lost cause for updates, but Qualcomm is still the go-to option for updates and, crucially, ROM development.

Qualcomm and MediaTek devices

The front of the Meizu Pro 7 Plus.

MediaTek is a firm fixture in the entry-level tier, with chips in phones like the Nokia 1, Nokia 3 and 3.1, and Redmi 6 and 6A. In fact, the company’s low-end Helio A22 and P22 chips were smaller than Qualcomm’s counterparts at the time of launch, which should result in better endurance on paper.

Qualcomm still leans on aging chips like the Snapdragon 212 and Snapdragon 425 for its entry-level needs. But the company’s new Snapdragon 429 and Snapdragon 439 processors might give it a shot in the arm.

Read: The best mid-range smartphone processors of 2019

The flagship level is utterly dominated by Qualcomm and its Snapdragon 800 series of chips (Snapdragon 835 and 845). Mediatek is taking a break from flagship chipsets, following the release of its Helio X30 flagship processor in 2017. Unfortunately the X30 only made it into the Meizu Pro 7 Plus (seen above), while Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 powered almost every other top-shelf device. If you’re buying a flagship phone, Snapdragon is the default chipset.

This is likely to be the case in 2019 too, as the U.S. chipmaker gets a ton of support from OEMs for its Snapdragon 855 chipset. Otherwise, MediaTek is sticking to the sub-flagship segments with its latest wares.

The mid-range sees more of a mix, as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400, 600, and 700 series edge out the Helio P60 and MT6750 range. Popular P60 and MT6750 phones include the Nokia 5.1 Plus, Realme 1, Oppo F9, LG Q7, and LG X Power 2. Meanwhile, prominent mid-range phones with Qualcomm chips include the Nokia 7 Plus, Xiaomi Mi A2, Xiaomi Redmi Note 5, and Realme 2 Pro. For the most part, the Snapdragon chips are the choice for many big-name mid-range phones. But MediaTek phones definitely have a presence here.

So, which one is better?

Ultimately, there’s far more to buying a smartphone than which chipset it uses. Would you buy a powerful phone with no features, or a mid-range phone with a great camera, water resistance, and a headphone jack?

If you’re planning to tinker with your phone’s inner workings or want a proper flagship phone, the choice is already made for you (Qualcomm). The mid-range bracket is murkier though, as MediaTek’s Helio P60/P70 and Qualcomm’s popular Snapdragon 660 are similarly powerful, though Qualcomm’s newest 600-series chips blow the Helio P60/P70 out of the water. But the Taiwanese company might see some wins with its Helio P90, thanks to that impressive AI performance in theory.

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It’s the entry-level category where MediaTek has an advantage, thanks to the Helio A22 and P22 series. Offering newer, smaller chips than Qualcomm’s low-end efforts up until recently, the new processors also deliver Bluetooth 5 (a rarity at this price-point).

MediaTek also generally undercuts Qualcomm’s prices, which doesn’t guarantee a MediaTek phone will be cheaper, but opens the possibility.

Looking for a comprehensive guide to MediaTek chips? Read our rundown over here. We’ve also got a guide to Qualcomm’s recent Snapdragon chips, available by clicking here.

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