Not to be outdone by Nvidia or Intel, American integrated circuit designer Qualcomm has taken the stage at CES to announce upgraded versions of their Snapdragon processors. I should note that the Keynote may have been the most hilariously terrible thing ever seen at CES, but I digress. Ahem, even if you don’t recognize the name, there is a very good chance that you have a phone or tablet with a Qualcomm chip inside. The very first Android phone, the G1, had a Qualcomm chip based on ARM11. The first 1Ghz+ phones came from Qualcomm’s very first generation of Snapdragons, using a modified version of the Cortex A8 called “Scorpion”. About 18 months ago, Qualcomm started referring to their varying generations of Snapdragons with alpha-numerical names like S1 through S4. S1 was the original 65nm part that came out in 2009, the S2 shrank the processor to 45nm, allowing for faster clock speeds and better graphics; the S3 upgraded the chips to dual core; and the current S4 rules the roost with a new internal architecture called “Krait”.
At this year’s CES, Qualcomm has not announced an S5. Instead, they are using a new nomenclature that plans to better differentiate their products based on their specific market segmentation. Whereas the previous S4 ranged from Play to Plus to Pro to Prime, this time around the new series is referred to as Snapdragon 200/400/600/800. 200 and 400 are essentially revised versions of the older Krait-based S4 and are meant for lower end devices. We can expect similar performance at a better price.
The big changes are for Snapdragon 600 and 800. 600 runs a heavily revised version of Krait called “Krait 300″, which Qualcomm promises has 40% better performance than S4 Pro (that is the quad core chip that currently sits in the Nexus 4 and other super phones) and runs at speeds up to 1.9Ghz in a quad-core configuration (up from 1.5Ghz). Krait 300′s magical performance improvements seem to come from little more than good revision of the internal architecture, no new fabrication process or technology. Just Qualcomm working diligently on improving the design.
Snapdragon 800 is where we see some scary power. 800 runs “Krait 400″, which has been switched to new version of TSMC’s 28nm process called HPm. When TSMC makes chips, they have a few ways to build the transistors. LP, or low power, was built for mobile applications where the focus is energy efficiency above all else. HP is for high performance like Nvidia and AMD’s 28nm GPUs, where the power restrictions are not so stringent. There was also HPL, which was meant for cellular chips. Now, HPm is coming online and represents a best of both worlds situation, combining the high performance of HP with the better power efficiency of LP. This is how Qualcomm and Nvidia have been able to get more performance out of their designs. With the switch to 28nm HPm as well as the improvements to the architecture, Krait 400 can run at speeds up to 2.3Ghz, and with up to 4 cores. Qualcomm has also added a new GPU called Adreno 330, which supports 4K resolutions and much stronger 3D performance. All told, Qualcomm says we can expect up to 70% more performance out of Snapdragon 800.
In the words of Anand La Shimpi, “Qualcomm really is the one to beat when it comes to smartphone SoCs.” The company had a thorough win with Krait and the S4, with the only ship architecture that could beat it being 6 months away. Now that the Cortex A15 is getting a rollout and Apple has the A6 Swift, the battle for smartphone chip dominance is taking a really exciting turn for the better. We haven’t seen such aggressive strides in chip development since the battles between x86 and RISC back in the late 90s.