One of the things that stood out at this year’swas the presence of three new mobile application processors—from MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung—that all use new 10nm FinFET manufacturing processes, which promise smaller transistors, faster peak performance, and better power management than the 14 and 16nm processes used in all of the current top-end phones. During the show, we got more details on these new processors, which should start appearing in phones over the next couple of months.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Qualcomm had prior to CES, but at Mobile World Congress, we were able to see the processor in a couple of phones, notably the , due out in June, as well as an unspecified (but publically demoed) ZTE “Gigabit phone.”
Qualcomm has said the 835 was the first 10nm product to enter production, manufactured on Samsung’s 10nm process. It is widely expected to be in the U.S. versions of the Samsung Galaxy S8, which will be unveiled on March 29.
The Snapdragon 835 uses Qualcomm’s Kryo 280 CPU core cluster, with four performance cores running at up to 2.45GHz with 2 megabytes of level 2 cache and four “efficiency” cores running at up to 1.9GHz. The company estimates that 80 percent of the time the chip will use the lower-power cores. While Qualcomm wouldn’t go into a lot of detail on the cores, the company said that rather than create completely custom cores, the cores are instead enhancements of two different ARM designs. It would make sense that the larger cores are a variation on the ARM Cortex-A73 and the smaller ones on the A53, but in meetings at MWC, Qualcomm stopped short of confirming that.
In talking about the chip, Keith Kressin, SVP of Product Management at Qualcomm Technologies, stressed that power management was a major focus, as it allows for sustained performance. But he also stressed the other features of the chip, which uses Adreno 540 graphics that feature the same basic architecture as the Adreno 530 did in the 820/821, but here provides a 30 percent improvement in performance. It also includes a Hexagon 628 DSP, including support for TensorFlow for machine learning, as well as an improved image sensor.
New in the processor in the company’s Haven security module, which handles such things as multifactor authentication and biometrics. Kressin stressed that what’s important is how all of this works together, and noted that wherever possible the chip will use the DSP, then the graphics, then the CPU. The CPU is actually “the core we least want to use,” he said.
One of the most notable features is the integrated “X16” modem, capable of gigabit download speeds (by using carrier aggregation on three 20 MHz channels) and upload speeds of 150 megabits per second. Again, this should be the first modem to ship that’s capable of such speeds, albeit only in markets where the wireless providers have the right spectrum. It also supports Bluetooth 5 and improved Wi-Fi.
Kressin said the processor will enable 25 percent better battery life than the previous 820/821 chips (manufactured on Samsung’s 14nm process) and will include Quick Charge 4.0 for faster charging.
At the show, the company announced a VR development kit and gave more details about how the chip will better handle VR and augmented reality applications, with an emphasis on improved function in stand-alone VR systems.
It is likely that the Snapdragon 835 will appear in a lot of phones over the course of the year. Kressin said the company was “hitting target yields today” and that it will ramp throughout the year.
Samsung Exynos 8895
Samsung LSI hasn’t been as public about its
Samsung LSI just announced the first Exynos 9 processor, technically the 8895, which will also be its first processor produced on the company’s 10nm FinFET process, which it says provides 27 percent improved performance on 40 percent lower power than its 14nm node. The 8895 is widely expected to be in international versions of the Galaxy S8, though we’re unlikely to see it in the U.S., as the internal modem doesn’t support the older CDMA network used by Verizon and Sprint.
Like the Qualcomm chip, Samsung’s has eight cores in two groups. The four high-end cores use the company’s second generation custom cores, and Samsung said these are ARMv8 compatible but have an “optimized microarchitecture for higher frequency and power efficiency,” though it wouldn’t discuss the differences in any more detail. For graphics, it uses ARM Mali-G71 MP20, which means it has 20 graphics clusters, up from 12 in the 14nm 8890, used in some of the international Galaxy S7 models. This should allow for faster graphics, including 4K VR at up to a 75Hz refresh rate as well as support for video recording and playback of 4K content at 120fps.
The two CPU clusters and the GPU are connected using what the firm calls the Samsung Coherent Interconnect (SCI), which enables heterogeneous computing. And it also includes a separate vision processing unit, designed for face and scene detection, video tracking, and things like panoramic pictures.
The product also includes its own gigabit modem, which supports Category 16, and has a theoretical maximum of 1 Gbps downlink (Cat 16, using 5-carrier aggregation) and 150Mbps uplink using 2CA (Cat 13). It will support 28-megapixel cameras or a dual-camera setup with 28 and 16 megapixels.
The firm said this allows for better stand-alone VR headsets, and demonstrated a stand-alone headset with 700 pixels-per-inch resolution. I thought the display was notably sharper than on the commercial VR headsets I’ve seen to date, though I still had a bit of the screen-door effect; what stood out was how fast the reaction time seemed given the higher resolution.
MediaTek Helio X30
MediaTek had announced its 10-core Helio X30 last fall, but at the
We got a lot more technical detail at last month’s(ISSCC), but the highlights remain interesting, as this seems likely to be the first chip out using TSMC’s 10nm process.
The key difference with this processor is its “tri-cluster” deca-core CPU architecture, featuring two 2.5 GHz ARM Cortex-A73 cores for high performance, four 2.2 GHz A53 cores for less demanding tasks, and four 1.9 GHz A35 cores that run when the phone is only doing light duty. These are connected by the firm’s own coherent system interconnect, called MCSI. A scheduler, known as Core Pilot 4.0, manages the interactions among these cores, turning them on and off and working to manage thermals and user experience items such as frames-per-second in order to deliver consistent performance.
As a result, the company says the X30 gets a 35 percent improvement in multi-threaded performance, and a 50 percent improvement in power, compared with last year’s 16nm Helio X20. That’s notably better than what the company claimed at the introduction. In addition, graphics have been improved, and the chip now uses a variation of the Imagination PowerVR Series 7 XT, running at 800MHz, which it says works at the same level as the current iPhone, delivering 2.4 times the processing power using 60 percent less power.
The chip has a Category 10 LTE modem, which supports LTE-Advanced, 3-carrier aggregation downloads (for a maximum theoretical download speed of 450Mbps), and 2-carrier aggregation uploads (for a maximum of 150 Mbps).
While MediaTek said its modems are certified in the U.S., you’re unlikely to see this chip in many phones in this market. That’s because it’s aimed at “sub-flagship” models and Chinese OEMs.
I asked Finbarr Moynihan, MediaTek’s General Manager of Corporate Sales, where application processors go from here, and he said that he expects more focus on user experience, and things such as smooth performance, fast charging, the camera, and on video features.
ARM Looks Forward
At the show, ARM announced that it had acquired two companies,
Michael J. Miller is chief information officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Miller, who was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine from 1991 to 2005, authors this blog for PCMag.com to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.