Guide to smartphone hardware (1/7): Processors

Texas Instruments’ OMAP SoCs

While Qualcomm SoCs seem to be the most popular amongst smartphone manufacturers (particularly HTC), Texas Instruments’ line of OMAP (Open Media Applications Platform) systems-on-chips are also widely used. Motorola is a big fan of the TI OMAP range, and almost exclusively uses them in their Android products.

Like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, TI OMAP SoCs come in a variety of ranges. The OMAP 1 and 2 series are quite old and you won’t find them in any new products, so it’s series 3 and 4 that we need to be concerned with in new products. Like the Snapdragon S4 products, the OMAP 5 series is the bleeding edge in TI’s range and has yet to make it into any devices.

Naming of the OMAP series is fairly straightforward, with a higher number SoC indicating better performance. The first digit is always indicative of the series, and newer series are always faster than the products in the older series. Using this logic, an OMAP4430 is better than an OMAP3630, which in turn is better than the OMAP3430.

A chip block diagram of the OMAP36xx SoCs. Note how many needed components are external

The TI OMAP 3 series is entirely single-core SoCs featuring an ARM Cortex-A8 processing core clocked between 600 MHz and 1 GHz, and the GPU inside is the PowerVR SGX530 which I’ll look at more closely in the graphics hardware article. The OMAP34xx and OMAP35xx products are both manufactured using a 65nm process, and the OMAP36xx’s using 45nm. Products using the older OMAP34xx SoCs include the Motorola Droid and Palm Pre, while the newer 36xx’s are featured inside the Motorola Defy, Motorola Droid X, Palm Pre 2, Nook Color and Nokia N9 to name a few.

The TI OMAP 4 series bumps up the specifications to dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processors clocked between 1 and 1.8 GHz and PowerVR SGX54x GPUs. There are three products in the OMAP 4 series so far:

  • The OMAP4430 used in the LG Optimus 3D and Motorola Droid Razr/Bionic (to name a few). This SoC is either clocked at 1.0 or 1.2 GHz and features the PowerVR SGX540 at 304 MHz
  • The OMAP4460 is an upgraded 4430 that is clocked between 1.2 and 1.5 GHz and bumps the GPU up to 384 MHz. It’s used in the Galaxy Nexus
  • The OMAP4470 can go right up to 1.8 GHz and features a considerably more powerful GPU. This SoC hasn’t been used in any products so far.

One main disadvantage to the TI OMAP line of SoCs is that the wireless radios and several other key components are not included within the chipset like they are in the Snapdragon SoCs. While this adds flexibility to add whatever communication technology you like, such as LTE, with ease, it can increase the size of the PCB needed inside the device.

However, the TI OMAP SoCs do include some other key features. TI includes their proprietary SmartReflex power-saving technology in their OMAP line, which they claim (for the OMAP 4) provides 10+ hours of 1080p playback and 120 hours of audio playback. They didn’t specify which battery they were using and what system, so take it with a grain of salt, but it sounds promising.

A chip block diagram for the TI OMAP4470

TI also has the IVA 2/3 multimedia accelerator included on the SoC die separate from the Cortex-A8/9 cores, which deals with up to 1080p media encoding and decoding on the fly. This handy addition relieves stress from the Cortex cores and as far as I can tell from Samsung's documentation their processors do not include this feature.

Another benefit of specifically the OMAP 4 series is they include two extra ARM Cortex-M3 cores which are used in low intensity situations to conserve power and save battery life. ARM’s MPE is also included that allows the SoC to run NEON code, something that NVIDIA’s Tegra range lacks; however at this stage the advantages of this are not very clear in terms of real-world performance.

The OMAP 5 series is the future of the OMAP range, and contains many features that the previous OMAP SoCs don’t have. You’ll see two ARM Cortex-A15 cores on the chip running at up to 2 GHz along with a much improved PowerVR chip, a dedicated 2D graphics chip, on-board audio processor and improved video accelerator amongst other impressive features. OMAP 5 SoCs should be starting to filter into the market in late 2012.

The Galaxy Nexus has the TI OMAP4460 SoC inside

If you’re looking at good performance benchmarks for current OMAP 4 processors, look no further than our Galaxy Nexus review that includes a performance review of the TI OMAP4460 at 1.2 GHz powering a 1280x720 display.

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