Guide to smartphone hardware (1/7): Processors

Which is best?

It’s really hard to say which SoC is best when you’re just looking at a few aspects of the whole package. The graphics chip makes a huge difference to the overall performance (as you’ll see in the next part in the series) and almost every chip-maker’s latest product utilizes the same ARM Cortex-A9 core at a relatively similar clock speed, and thus they have almost the same CPU performance.

Most non-graphics performance improvements come from the other components included in the SoC apart from the actual cores. For example, NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 chips lack the ARM Advanced SIMD which probably inhibits performance of the chip very slightly in media-related situations. Also, the other components in the phone that are not part of the SoC affect things, such as the size of the battery.

It’s great to see that a lot of SoC manufacturers are finding interesting ways to save power in the chipsets that they make. I was particularly interested in the addition of “companion” cores in SoC’s like the Tegra 3 (with the LP Cortex-A9 core) and the TI OMAP 4 series (with two Cortex-M3s), and as far as benchmarks go this seems to do something to help. Keep in mind though that the different set-ups of devices can greatly affect their battery life, so results from benchmarks may not indicate that the SoC is wholly responsible for great battery life.

The TI OMAP4430 SoC as seen in the Droid Razr (highlighted in light blue)

In terms of actual size the Snapdragons have a clear advantage because they manage to pack not only the processing cores, graphics chip and media accelerators in the one SoC but they also chuck in full wireless radios, GPS and RAM in the package. As this saves on other chips, the size of the PCB in theory can be cut down, leaving more internal space for batteries or slimming down the device.

There are other things that these chips can do but aren’t fully used, such as how most support camera resolutions in excess of 16 MP and display resolutions up to 1920x1200 with 1080p HDMI out as well. These are just nice numbers to know as smartphone manufacturers almost always choose parts that do not come close to maxing out the SoC’s capabilities (except the Exynos which has a relatively low supported resolution).

Personally I like the TI OMAP chips purely from the perspective that Texas Instruments seem to include many different processing chips inside the SoC that all help save power, more so than say the Exynos or Snapdragon. Although in the end, this difference is probably very minimal.

Part 2: Graphics

I hope you enjoyed this guide and learnt a bit more about what exactly is inside your smartphone and what hidden differences there are between the various SoCs. Very soon I should have up the next part of the guide which looks at smartphone graphics hardware: the other major chip that is contained within the SoC.

If you have any questions about what I have gone over in this guide please feel free to comment below or ask in our forums. I’ll try my best to answer questions but I’m not a hardware manufacturer so I might not have all the answers.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Qualcomm, TI, NVIDIA, Samsung, Apple, Anandtech and iFixit

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