Spreadtrum processor.

Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei might rule the mobile processor roost, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only players in town. In the past few years, we’ve also seen another player emerge in the form of China’s Spreadtrum, mainly gaining ground in the entry-level sector.

Spreadtrum, founded in 2001, has made waves recently thanks to a high-profile partnership with Intel to produce new chips. But you may have used a Spreadtrum-powered device before, with Samsung being its most high-profile customer.

In fact, we see Spreadtrum chipsets in Samsung’s Z series of Tizen phones (as seen above), the Galaxy Tab 3 Lite, Galaxy Tab E, and the Galaxy Pocket 2, to name several models. So it’s fair to say that the company isn’t a fly-by-night player in the market.

What should you expect from Spreadtrum processors though? We put together a beginner’s guide to their SoCs.

The low-end Spreadtrum chips

Spreadtrum’s first foray into low-end chips, starting in 2012, yielded chips that were lacking features, even back then.

Some chips in their initial lineup lacked 3G capabilities, but we did see single-core A7 or dual-core A5 CPUs and single or dual-core Mali 400 GPUs. These SoCs went toe to toe with the likes of Qualcomm’s S4 Play chip, seeing adoption by the likes of Samsung (Galaxy Pocket 2).

Once the company got moving into the 3G era proper, we saw the firm delivering a bunch of quad-core A7 designs in the low-end category (with the exception of the dual-core SC7727S). Don’t expect A53 cores here at all, let alone the new A55 cores.

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Quad-core A7 trappings aside, we still see the now obsolete Mali 400 GPU being used in these chips. The Mali configurations range from single-core (SC7727S) to dual-core (SC7730A, SC7730S, SC7731G, SC8831G) and quad-core (SC7735S, SC8735S, SC8835S).

A rather interesting observation in this tier is that the number of GPU cores seems to correlate with the camera and video support. The single-core SC7727S tops out at 720p for video support and 8MP for camera size. Meanwhile, the SoCs with dual-core graphics offer up 1080p video/8MP camera support, while the SoCs with quad-core GPUs offer 1080p video and cameras up to 13MPs.

 SC7727SSC9830Snapdragon 212 (MSM8909AA)Mediatek MT6582
CPU2x Cortex-A7 @ 1.2Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.5Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.3Ghz4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.3Ghz
GPUMali 400 MP1Mali 400 MP2Adreno 304Mali 400 MP2
Cameras8MP single13MP singleUp to 16MP13MP single
Process28nm28nm28nm28nm

There are three other peculiar chips in this category that we haven’t mentioned, with the first being the dual-core A7 SC9820. Featuring a single-core Mali 400 GPU, support for 5MP cameras and 720p video viewing, the SC9820 actually supports LTE.

The other two peculiar chips in this bracket are the SC9830A and SC9850, being quad-core A7 designs with LTE capabilities, 1080p video decoding and support for up to 13MP cameras. The former offers a dual-core Mali 400 GPU while the latter delivers newer but single-core Mali T820 graphics.

Notable phones: We’ve seen a couple of major brands opt for these SoCs, with high-profile devices like the Samsung Z1 (SC7727S) and the Samsung Galaxy J3 2016 (SC9830). Believe it or not, but the firm’s low-end SC9820 (dual-core A7) actually powers the Nokia 3310 4G.

TL;DR: These chips are basically the equivalent of Qualcomm’s 32-bit Snapdragon 200 and 400 series in many ways. So that means quad-core A7 CPUs (for the most part), camera support topping out at 13MPs and possibly packing LTE. Don’t bet on the latter though.

The Mali-400 GPUs are very old right now, with the quad-core variant being the only one to compare favourably to the Adreno 305 in the Snapdragon 400. But the GPU is competitive with the low-end Snapdragon 200.

In any event, Qualcomm and Mediatek have long moved from quad-core A7 designs to 64-bit A53 designs in this price category — at least for the most part.

Mid-range

This is going to be an extremely brief category because Spreadtrum’s only chip that qualifies as a traditional mid-range processor is the SC9860GV. And it hasn’t been used in any phones.

So what qualifies as mid-range these days then? Well, for the past two or three years, that’s meant a phone with an octacore A53 chipset for starters (see MediaTek’s MT675x range, the Helio P-series and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 43x,  61x, 62x and 63x series). Spreadtrum’s SoC fits the bill here.

Spreadtrum hasn't had much success in the mid-range tier, seeing adoption at the low-end instead

We also see LTE connectivity and a GPU that, while significantly slower than today’s flagships, gives two or three year old flagships a run for their money. Yep, the SC9860GV packs a Mali T880 MP4 (the same chip and core count as the Huawei P9 and Mate 8). In fact, the T880 was also used by the Galaxy S7 range, in MP12 flavour.

The chipset, which was first unveiled at MWC 2016, also sports dual-camera support, a 16nm FinFET manufacturing process, HEVC encode/decode and 4K recording/playback. So why haven’t we seen any phones adopting this?

 SC9860GVSnapdragon 625Mediatek Helio P20
CPU4x Cortex-A53 @ 2Ghz
4x Cortex-A53 @ 1.25Ghz
8x Cortex-A53 @ 2Ghz8x Cortex-A53 @ 2.3Ghz
GPUMali T880 MP4Adreno 506Mali T880 MP2
Camera13MP+13MP dual or 26MP single13MP+13MP dual or 24MP single24MP
Process16nm14nm16nm

TL;DR: Spreadtrum’s only traditional 64-bit mid-range chip ticks all the boxes for a great budget processor on paper, but it seems like the company was late to the party. It doesn’t hurt that the Snapdragon 625 ticked all these boxes and added a smaller 14nm process for better power efficiency.

MediaTek’s Helio P series has also been a firm fixture in scores of mid-range Chinese smartphones for almost two years now, affecting Spreadtrum’s momentum in this price bracket.

Look at the GPU and you’ve got a match for Huawei’s Kirin 950, while confidently trading blows with the Snapdragon 625’s Adreno 506 GPU. A pity we didn’t get to see it in a production device.

Spreadtrum’s top-end chips

Much like Spreadtrum’s mid-range category, it’s slim pickings at its top-end bracket, but what interesting pickings nonetheless. Because both of the chips are essentially octacore versions of Intel’s Atom SoCs, using eight Airmont cores.

It doesn’t hurt that both of the chips (SC9853i and SC9861G-IA) are built on Intel’s 14nm manufacturing process too.

Fortunately, these chips are in at least two smartphones already, as Leagoo’s T5C and the LS9718 from little-known brand Senwa feature the SC9853i. Announced in August 2017 and launched a few months later, the SC9853i packs those eight aforementioned Airmont cores, but also includes a dual-core version of the ageing Mali T820 graphics chip. Sigh, you can’t win them all, can you?

Otherwise, the chip also supports up to 16MP+8MP dual cameras, but we’re not sure about display resolution. It’s also noteworthy that 4K recording isn’t guaranteed with this chip, offering 1080p instead.

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The SC9861G-IA (announced in March) seems a little better on the spec sheet, packing the octacore Airmont cores but also delivering a 2014-era PowerVR GT7200 GPU, 2560×1600 display resolution, 18:9 screen ratios, 4K/30fps HEVC encoding/decoding and 13MP dual-camera/26MP single camera support.

 SC9853ISC9861G-IASnapdragon 625Snapdragon 845
CPU8x Intel Airmont cores @ 1.8Ghz8x Intel Airmont cores @ 2Ghz8x Cortex-A53 @ 2Ghz8x Kryo 385 @ 2.8Ghz
GPUMali T820 MP2PowerVR GT7200Adreno 506Adreno 630
Camera16MP+8MP dual13MP+13MP dual or 26MP single13MP+13MP dual or 24MP single16MP+16MP dual or 32MP single
Process14nm14nm14nm10nm

The one question though is whether the former SoC will indeed see mass buy-in from manufacturers. Intel’s x86 chips haven’t been in an Android phone for almost two years now, with this essentially being an unofficial Atom processor.

But it’s not meant to be a one-off, as Intel CEO Bryan Kazanich says we can indeed expect “additional mobile platforms” as a result of this partnership.

TL;DR: The SC9853i is an octacore Intel Atom chip, really. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’ll be desktop-class. In fact, Leagoo’s own benchmarks claim it beats the MT6750 by 25% and 36% for single and multicore performance respectively. For the record, the MT6750 is one of MediaTek’s budget octacore offerings, essentially being an underclocked Helio P10 with the same core layout and GPU.

Spreadtrum versus Mediatek

It’s a bit concerning if that’s your benchmark rather than even 2016’s high-end chipsets, isn’t it? Heck, the Snapdragon 820 scores exponentially more than the MT6750 in single-core benchmarks alone. So Leagoo and Spreadtrum are essentially saying that the new SC9853i isn’t as good as two-year-old flagship silicon.

To be fair, Leagoo’s senior vice president Zhijie Xie told us at MWC 2018 that the SC9853i was targeted at the Snapdragon 625. However, the Leagoo representative acknowledged that the performance was a “little bit low” in comparison.

Where to next for Spreadtrum?

The Intel relationship is certainly a big one and not a once-off. The introduction of the SC9853i is definitely a sign of intent from Spreadtrum that it’s aiming for the volume-shifting mid-range sector.

“Spreadtrum, which is already working with various global brands, has been very meticulous or even picky to select its first SC9853i smartphone partner because its ambition has little tolerance for business mistakes,” read an excerpt from the partnership statement, calling Leagoo a partner which can “penetrate in the world mobile market (sic)”.

Read: Why pay a thousand bucks for an iPhone X when you can pay $300 for an Android lookalike?

Another question is whether they can secure enough buy-in from budget manufacturers, which traditionally have a cosy relationship with Qualcomm and Mediatek.

More specifically, the move to team up with Leagoo also suggests that Spreadtrum, while trumpeting expansion, is hoping to carve out a slice of the tasty domestic mid-range pie in China.

Spreadtrum's ambition has little tolerance for business mistakes

Earning adoption in the Chinese budget sector also bodes well for success in emerging markets such as India and the African continent, where Chinese brands enjoy massive popularity. Take a look at Xiaomi in India or Huawei on the African continent for proof.

As for the high-end smartphone sector? At this early stage it’s clear that the new chipsets are more of a mid-range product than anything truly top-end.

A major 5G partnership

Could we see flagship chipsets borne from this partnership then? I suppose it depends on how deep Spreadtrum can dig into Intel’s IP. But recent news that the duo are teaming up for 5G smartphones has made us sit and take notice.

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“Integrating Intel’s strong technical expertise in modems with Unigroup Spreadtrum & RDA’s solid experience in chipset design, the companies will collaborate on 5G and develop Spreadtrum’s first Android-based high-end 5G smartphone solution utilizing an Intel modem and Spreadtrum’s application processor technology,” read an Intel press release announcing the partnership in February.

The companies are targeting a launch in the second half of 2019.

It’s clear that the likes of Qualcomm and Huawei are leading the way for 5G technology, but the transition might prove to be a windfall for Spreadtrum as well. Nevertheless, Intel’s extended absence in the higher end arena means it’ll be a massive task to take on the current mobile SoC juggernauts.