Mobile Processor Snapshot

The goal here is to break down the main differentiating features of recent, new, and upcoming mobile processors. ARM-based processors lead the superphone and tablet market. I will break-down and quickly explain fabrication and number of cores plus touch on the graphics engines each mobile processor uses. Let’s dig in.

Fabrication: Starting with the original Motorola Droid, Palm Pre, Google Nexus One, Droid Incredible, and even HTC EVO 4G the chips were built on a 65nm technology. These were usually slower processors (compared to today) that required more power to run. The best examples are TI’s OMAP 3430 and Qualcomm’s QSD8x50 Snapdragon. Although the QSD8x50 did have the privilege of providing the first 1 GHz mobile processor!

Moving to current generation mobile processors they all use 40 - 45 nm technology. This, of course, lowers power consumption while also increasing performance. The TI OMAP 36xx series is a 45nm die shrink of the 34xx series. Qualcomm’s MSM8x55 Snapdragon represents the same. Samsung’s “Hummingbird” S5PC110 made famous by the Galaxy S line of cell phones is in this camp as well. NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 appears to use the only, slightly smaller, 40nm process.

The next great evolution to 28nm will not happen until sometime around mid-year 2012.

Cores and speed: NVIDIA Tegra 2 wins first to market with dual-core 1 GHz. It already holds a significant market lead powering the LG Optimus 2x, Motorola Atrix 4G, Motorola XOOM (tablet) and many others. Also interesting is that NVIDIA plans to win first-to-market with quad-core towards the end of 2011.

TI OMAP 4430 dual-core 1 GHz will follow shortly with what appears to be a slight mobile graphics advantage over the Tegra. The 4430 is already announced for LG Optimus 3D and Blackberry Playbook (tablet). The power consumption advantage may also be in TI’s favor but it is a little early to tell. The OMAP 4440 arrives in the second half of 2011 rated at 1.5 GHz per core.

The final dual-core (worth noting) is the MSM8x60 Snapdragon. It comes rated the fastest at launch with 1.2 GHz per core. They also increased graphics performance and efficiency over MSM8x55. First rumored phone is HTC Pyramid due around May. Qualcomm also expects to reach 1.5 GHz by the end of 2011.

ST-Ericsson and Samsung also have dual-cores coming but they don’t match up well yet. Even so, the competition for mobile processors is exciting right now and should drive the technology even faster.

Graphics: Three main players in this market. Imagination Technologies PowerVR division currently licenses the Series5 (SGX5xx) to TI, Samsung, Intel, and Apple. Qualcomm uses in-house Adreno graphics (formerly ATI/AMD Imageon mobile division). NVIDIA also stays in-house with their ULP GeForce GPUs. A fourth worth mentioning is ARM’s Mali GPU used in Samsung’s dual-core Exynos 4210 and ST-Ericsson. Considering Samsung also made a big investment in the Tegra 2 and ST-Ericsson committed to transitioning to PowerVR Series6 later…ARM Mali is certainly behind the curve in graphics.

Quickly and hopefully not confusingly…TI OMAP 34xx and 36xx uses SGX530. Samsung Hummingbird and OMAP 44xx use the SGX540 with at least 2x performance increase. Qualcomm MSM8x55 uses Adreno 205 and the MSM8x60 will use Adreno 220 with 2-4x boost. Tegra 2 uses ULP GeForce which should fall in slightly below the OMAP 44xx implementation of SGX540 and the Adreno 220. Here are some preliminary graphs but note the Adreno 220 absent since it is not yet released.

Conclusions: Competition rocks. I left out some details on purpose (e.g. Cortex A8, A9, A15, Scorpion, and Krait comparisons). If you’re on 65nm technology now is a good time to start looking at upgrade options. If you want dual-core yesterday then Tegra 2 is the only game. Can you wait a few months? TI and Qualcomm should have good options by then. Personally, the second half of 2012 looks even more promising. I just hope a Hummingbird and OMAP 3621 will keep me content for 18 months.

Later in 2012: TI, NVIDIA, and STEricsson should all release great Cortex-A15’s based on 28nm fabrication. Qualcomm will also arrive with Krait based on 28nm fab.