In the ever-changing landscape of mobile technology, many processors have risen and fallen. From the birth of HiSilicons’s lauded Kirin series, to the coming of age of Samsung’s Exynos chips, and even the death of Texas Instruments’ OMAP chipsets, we’ve watched in excitement, horror, and – yes – sometimes even disgust, as our hopes and dreams for these chips endured similar highs and lows.
With the schedule of newly announced processors beginning to mirror that of buses, we take a brief look back at what’s shaped this landscape and analyze the present state of these chipsets, as well as their futures.
As previously referenced, SoCs have had a tumultuous history within the Android world, and its developer community therein. Unfortunately, one of the oldest, most strained points of contention is still very relevant today – source code. We’ve had much talk about these issues on XDA, and the information is out there if you’d like to know more, but for the purposes of this article we’ll only be touching on this briefly.
While not of great importance to the average consumer, enthusiasts and developers have been plagued with this smartphone/OS killer since the dawn of the Android platform. Many of you are intimately familiar with these struggles — whether because of the OEM that makes the phone, or the company which supplies the chipset, in too many instances the kernel and ROM source codes are not shared to the public as, at least, the kernel code should. This can raise many issues, ranging from increased difficulty in customization – often leading to the abrupt and premature end of support for otherwise-capable devices – to the disallowing of community efforts meant to strengthen a device’s capability or even security. Altogether, this has served to help drive premature obsolescence, stymie the progression of software, and often under-utilize the advanced hardware in our beloved handsets. But alas, these are manufacturing companies we speak of, and most know of no other way to make money and remain competitive. Ultimately though, withholding kernel source code violates the Linux kernel’s GPL and, in many instances, even works against their own interests. Although some improvements have been made, known offenders have resorted to releasing their source code without proper documentation or support for their proprietary blobs – when they do so at all. In this article, we’ll be addressing, among other things, chipset manufacturers’ roles, stances, and actions as it relates to this issue.
This uniquely-Android problem aside, consumers must also contend with a less Android-specific but, nonetheless, related issue – chipset quality. Because Android offers such a wide variety of phones, ranging from prepaid “burners” to high-end flagships – and everywhere in between – the quality of silicon in these phones ranges accordingly. This broad spectrum means that most SoC’s are fabricated with adaptability in mind, not necessarily a particular device. Although, some OEM’s – like Samsung and Huawei – do make their own chips, often producing the noticeable gains one would expect from this tighter integration and targeted resources (for example, Qualcomm’s bread and butter is offering a plethora of features – from quick charge to the hexagon DSP – for OEMs of all shapes and sizes to implement) . This is likely one reason other manufacturers have followed suit as well. After all, “real men” do use the best tool for the job, not just the best tool available, and sometimes that means custom chipsets or custom cores.
Mediatek – Helio X series
Notable Integrations: Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 – Helio X20, Meizu Pro 6/Xiaomi Redmi Pro – Helio X25
ARM Mali-T880 MP4 @ 780MHz
Although a major player in the mobile computing world, specifically in China, Mediatek is none too popular among the broader developer community. Chief among these reasons is the company’s documented resistance to releasing their source codes. This not only creates a hindrance for developers attempting to produce alternative Android ROM’s, but also for those who depend on these tinkerers to have the most current Android versions – without having to buy a new phone every two years, or less. Thankfully, as of November of last year, the X20 has been released as a development board, complete with AOSP source code. Granted, proper action came over a year and a half after the X20’s initial release, at least the tools exist to create an AOSP ROM for X20 devices – putting the prospect of an unofficial Nougat port well within reach. Some developers like those of Team MAD have provided excellent ROMs for MediaTek phone users in our forums, too, helping shatter the preconceived notion that MediaTek phones and custom non-stock ROMs cannot be in the same sentence.
The components of this SoC are capable of some solid performance; but in practice the implementation and scheduling of these pieces has left some to be desired. Though the A72 cores have proven their high-performance single-core capabilities in other SoC’s we’ve tested, the three-cluster deca-core setup has been known to operate mostly off of the two A53 clusters. The Mali T880 MP4 GPU also lags in performance, compared to the Mali-T880 MP12 (12-core) and Adreno 530 found in the Exynos 8890 and the Snapdragon 820/821, respectively. The recently announced successor, the 10nm Mediatek X30, ups its A72’s to A73’s while lowering one of its two 4xA53 clusters to A35’s. Hopefully, this setup is better optimized for utilizing the power and efficiency of its purposeful cluster arrangement. Unfortunately, switching the GPU to the PowerVR Series7XT still leaves this upcoming SoC behind the aforementioned older Exynos and Snapdragon.
HiSilicon – Kirin Series
Notable Integrations: Huawei Mate 9 – Kirin 960, Honor 6X – Kirin 655
ARM Mali-G71MP8@900 MHz
A subsidiary of Huawei, HiSilicon has ascended the ranks to become another huge player in the Chinese market. As Huawei continues to gain global recognition, the Kirin series has capitalized on this exposure with its increasingly exceptional performance – garnering some attention of its own. Perhaps this attention will lead to an improvement in the company’s shoddy track record of releasing code for developers. Zack Zhang, the vice president of Huawei’s sister company Honor (USA branch), has stated that they would like to be more open to developers, especially seeing the level of support and attention paid to their open-source Snapdragon-powered device, the Honor 5X. However, meaningful movement on this subject remains to be seen, even while XDA consistently engaged in discussion with Honor representatives to expedite the process. Without chipset source code and documentation, even unofficial ports of Nougat are hindered for Kirin-powered devices, irrespective of how capable the hardware is. Luckily, the developer community always finds a way.
As we’ve seen in our preliminary testing of the Kirin 960, a device running this SoC has ample capability. A deeper analysis of the A72 cores in the Kirin 950 showed single-core performance which topped the Snapdragon 820’s custom Kryo CPU, and only slightly trailed Samsung’s custom M1 core used in the Exynos 8890. We noted the same results in our Honor 8 review, a remarkably speedy phone for its price. This is some impressive company to be keeping, as such, similarly remarkable performance in the 960 should come as no surprise. ARM states that their A73 cores offer up to 30% higher performance than the previous generation A72, and the same percentage of improvement in power efficiency. Much like MediaTek’s Helio X20, the weakest processing point of the Kirin 960 lies with its GPU. According to ARM, the Mali-G71 GPU delivers up to 20% better energy efficiency, 40% better performance density and 20% external memory bandwidth savings compared to their own Mali-T880 “under similar conditions.” This configuration, however, is still not enough to top the performance of the formidable Adreno 530, or Mali-T880 MP12 – however, the G71 is a highly scalable GPU, so implementation matters as we’ve seen with the Mali-T880. Leaks suggest the next Kirin iteration will have the same octa-core setup as the 960, though built on a 10nm process. No indication of the planned GPU, but release in the first half of 2017 is expected.
Samsung – Exynos Series
Notable Integrations: Galaxy S7 series/Galaxy Note 7 – Exynos 8890, Galaxy S6 Series/Galaxy Note 5 – Exynos 7420
4xM1@2.60GHz (1-2 core load)
@2.29GHz (3-4 core load)
ARM Mali-T880 MP12 @ 650MHz
Dating back to the release of Samsung’s first Galaxy S device, this line has almost invariably offered Exynos-based variants, typically in non-U.S. markets. For the most part, these chips proved to be competitive to their Snapdragon cousins, albeit almost always a bit behind Qualcomm in GPU performance. The other clear advantage held by the Snapdragon variants comes in the form of custom ROM development. Samsung has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to releasing proper source code – even in the face of catastrophic failures brought on by its own software. In the years following these egregious displays of customer and developer indifference, Samsung has started to release source code – presumably with the sole intent of avoiding litigation. They’ve certainly made it clear that this is not a step taken to aid development, as the omission of documentation, drivers, and blob support have made these source codes largely unworkable. This leaves Exynos chips quite vulnerable to obsolescence. Coupled with the uncertain future of board support, it seems many Samsung devices (including the 2015 Galaxy Note 4 and A7/A8 as well as the 2016 Galaxy J7, A5, and A7) may be left out of Nougat updates. Though this issue isn’t exclusive to Exynos-powered handsets, a quick browse of our Galaxy Note 4 forum shows the Snapdragon variant persevering much better than its Exynos counterpart – the SD boasting a few ROM’s based on 7.1.1, while the Exynos currently has none. Luckily, newer Exynos handsets including the excellent S7 Edge have fared better in this regard, though not without significant efforts by the community.
On the performance front, the M1 custom-cores of the Exynos 8890 have seemingly pulled ahead of the competing Snapdragon 820/821’s custom Kryo cores. In our tests comparing the Snapdragon-based Note 7 to Samsung’s Exynos build of the same phone, we found very good performance in both. The Exynos, however, did edge the SD slightly in single-core performance, and pulled away further in multi-core, due to its higher number of cores and Samsung’s unbeatable experience with big.LITTLE, which they began employing years before the competition. The 8890 also showed better thermal performance, maintaining lower average and peak temperatures; though neither device experienced exorbitant performance dips, irrespective of temperature. Dethroning the mighty Adreno 530 GPU, though, would prove a tougher task. In terms of peak temperature, the Mali-T880 MP12 held its own with the Adreno, besting it by little more than one degree. Alternatively, performance tells a different story. The 530 easily outclassed the T-880 MP12 in sustained performance, seeing only an 18% decrease in its final test, compared to the 27% drop in the Mali processor. Overall, we found peak scores to be about 15% lower on the Exynos.
While much has been made of the rumored Snapdragon 835-destined Galaxy S8, the Exynos 8895 has churned the S8 rumor mill with its own impressive leaks. Manufactured on a 10nm process, rumors suggest this chip can clock speeds as high as 4Ghz with the same efficiency as the Snapdragon 835 pushing 3.6Ghz. An octa-core setup of four custom M2 cores paired with four A53’s in a big.LITTLE setup has been reported as well. Building on the excellence of the M1 cores should yield promising gains in CPU performance, but it remains to be seen if the implementation of ARM’s newest 20-core Mali-G71 GPU can finally put the Exynos 8895 head-and-shoulders above Qualcomm’s much anticipated Snapdragon 835. Samsung has typically employed the highest tiered ARM GPUs, and we expect their new chip to be no different.
Qualcomm – Snapdragon Series
Notable Implementations: Google Pixel/Pixel XL – Snapdragon 821, Oneplus3/3T – Snapdragon 820, Galaxy S7/Note7 – Snapdragon 820
2x Kryo 2.15 GHz
2x Kryo 1.59 GHz
2x LPDDR4 @1803MHz
Finally, we have Qualcomm. Known for its veteran Snapdragon series and dominant Adreno GPUs, Qualcomm’s always-open source codes have earned them adoration and respect from the developer community. Released through codeaurora.org (CAF), the availability of complete source codes, with documentation, and drivers has enabled development for Snapdragon devices to flourish. Although the tools for development are plentiful, this does not preclude some Snapdragon-powered devices from potentially not receiving Nougat support. While Qualcomm has said that they will support the 4xx series of Adreno GPU’s in the transition to Vulkan, the 3xx series has not been so lucky. This effectively prohibits any device running SD800/801 SoC’s from receiving official Nougat support. This includes the 2014 Sony Xperia Z series, Galaxy S4 & S5 (Snapdragon variants), HTC One M8, Oneplus One/X, and the Nexus 5. Fortunately, thanks in part to Qualcomm’s open code, this has not stopped many of these devices from gaining unofficial Nougat support.
Snapdragon chipsets have generally proven to be solid all-around performers, with only a few notable exceptions. HTC’s M9 implementation of the Snapdragon 810 left something to be desired, due to its poor thermals and inclination to throttle, some found the SD801/805 to perform better in certain tests. Other Snapdragon 810 phones fared slightly better, but none proved exceptional in any regard. The Snapdragon 820/821, on the other hand, has more than redeemed itself, playing an integral role in the two best performing Android devices we’ve ever tested (in the real world) – the Oneplus3/3T and Google Pixel/PixelXL. Our analysis using Geekbench 3 and 4 did reveal the Snapdragon’s Kryo cores to be trailing the Exynos 8890 in Geekbench 4 single-core performance, though the 820 had a substantial advantage in Geekbench 3. The Kirin 950/960, which also trailed the 820 in Geekbench 3, edges out the 820 in Geekbench 4 single-core performance as well. Both the Kirin and Exynos dispatch the 820 handily in multi-core performance, whether in Geekbench 3 or 4. All this is to say that while the 820/821 was a solid performer with an unbeatable GPU, the upcoming Snapdragon 835 will need to stage a more convincing performance to make up this ground and create distance between these SoC’s and their upcoming predecessors.
Many are looking forward to the much sought-after, and still unreleased, Snapdragon 835. Qualcomm has detailed the specs, showing a 10nm process on an octa-core setup comprised of eight Kryo 280 (semi-custom, or ARM-based) cores – four clocked at 2.45Ghz, and the other four at 1.90Ghz. The Adreno 540 returns to defend its title as a perennial powerhouse as well. One of the most talked about features has been the 835’s capabilities in machine learning. Having worked directly with Tensorflow on the honing of these abilities, Qualcomm hopes their hardware will facilitate the next meaningful leap in mobile technologies. The true test of medal for this partnership will likely be seen in the Galaxy S8’s implementation of Bixby. Specifically, which device performs machine learning tasks most efficiently, the Exynos-powered S8 or its Snapdragon 835 counterpart.
And Then There Was Apple
In 2013, Apple ruined Qualcomm’s day next couple years by introducing their A7 SoC – the first mobile chip to use 64-bit architecture for smartphones. Qualcomm was forced to scrap their years-long roadmap and prematurely push out an effectively inferior chip, the Snapdragon 810. Since then, Apple has come back every September with solid incremental gains on their sole proprietary SoC – reminding Qualcomm, and others, who the leader is. This past September was no exception, as Apple announced their A10 “Fusion” chip. Claiming a 40% boost over the already leading A9 processor, benchmarks have only further affirmed its dominance. Scoring as high as 3460 and 5733 on Geekbench 4’s single-core and multi-core tests, respectively, the A10 trounces any single-core performance we’ve seen and only slightly trails the 6298 multi-core performance score of the deca-core Kirin 960. Not bad for a quad-core processor. The benefits of custom SoC’s are undeniable, but whereas the support for which is a mixed bag in the Android world, iOS users have enjoyed the latest updates for an average of about 5 years – no developing required, or allowed, for that matter.
The Jolly Green Giant
Perhaps, the only hope for similar support lies with Google – as is often the case for Android fans. If Google steps into the mobile chipset game – even if only to support the Pixel line – they can mirror Apple’s so-called “vertical integration” and achieve complete control of hardware and software. The in-house mating of the two has supposedly given Apple a fundamental edge in performance and support over Android manufacturers, although to be fair changes in the rendering process of newer iPhones have resulted in unsatisfying smoothness compared to previous years, and Android OEMs have proved they can do great things without the need for in-house chipsets. Google has already shown some chops, as evidenced by the Pixel’s excellent integration of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821. The idea of Google slinging silicon is powerful enough to send waves throughout, not just the development community, but the entire consumer market. Whether these efforts will originally be restricted to the mid or low range, though, is something we have to wait to find out.
Do you have a particular SoC you’re looking forward to? Or perhaps a tried and true you’ll be sticking with during the coming wave?