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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 or Nvidia Tegra 4; Who Looks Set to be Chipset King in 2013?

January 16, 2013 - Written By Tom Dawson

If ever there was a year where smartphones and tablets look set to become as capable as our laptops and Desktops – or at least, very close – then 2013 is that year. Of course, for a lot of things, ARM based processors aren’t going to replace your Core i7 build or that i7 ultrabook you saved forever to buy, but for everyday tasks – and some talks outside of that – ARM processors have really grown up and there’s more reason than ever to consider an ARM-based machine to do a lot of your computing type stuff – or whatever it is you do on the web these days. In fact, I’m writing this from the ARM based Chromebook that Samsung has to offer, with a dual-core Exynos 5250. Dual-Core? That is so 2012 or at least, Nvidia and Qualcomm would have you believe. The days of packing just two cores onto processors are gone and quad-core is very much here to stay.

Qualcomm and Nvidia both announced quad-core powerhouses, but which one is better? Which one has what it takes to become the most used and most popular chipset of 2013? Read on as we weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Nvidia Tegra 4

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The Tegra 4 is obviously the successor to last year’s Tegra 3, which was quad-core as well so, what’s different here? Well, for starters this is the first Cortex-A15 based processor that Nvidia will be shipping and with that should come some noticeable performance gains over the Cortex-A9 based Tegra 3. Nvidia themselves, are promising a big speed increase when it comes to the Tegra 3. Compared to other tablet processors – the Exynos 5250 in the Nexus 10 for example – web pages loaded in about half the time and graphics are to be something that will be an improvement as well. Nvidia have always tried to differentiate themselves from the rest of the market by offering their GeForce GPU technology. This time around Nvidia have squeezed a massive 72 graphics cores into the Tegra 4, there were 12 in the Tegra 3.

All of this is great but, what can this actually do for us? Well, the Tegra 4 is more than capable of handling 4K HD content and will be able to take HDR photos in around 0.2 seconds. High Dynamic Range is perhaps the next wave of refinement to hit smartphone cameras and the Tegra 4 will be so powerful it can pipe a live feed of HDR imaging to the display of a device. While this might not sound like a big boost it’s something that is going to become more important as more and more people are relying on their smartphones as their primary camera. Power efficiency is something that Nvidia need to work – as an owner of a Tegra 3 phone, I can testify to poor battery life – and they’ve already promising a 45% increase in efficiency from the Tegra 3. With it’s 2nd Generation Battery Saving Core, the company are promising 14 hours of HD video on a device.

Nvidia have been the company to be first out of the gate with both dual-core and quad-core processors, and the Tegra 4 seems like a processor that’s ready to take orders. Vizio already have a tablet with a Tegra 4 in it and we should be seeing more of this processor throughout 2013. This is one to be featured in more tablets than it is smartphones. Which might well limit the Tegra 4’s exposure but, with tablets pushing ever higher resolutions, the emphasis will be on media consumption and gaming. Two things that Nvidia’s Tegra seems made for. Nvidia now have LTE included on-chip, which will help the Tegra 4 get in the door of U.S. carriers, which was dominated by the S4 last year.

Snapdragon 800

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If Nvidia were going to be at CES, then so too were Qualcomm and they certainly had a lot to tell us. First of all, it looks like the S4 is done with and the company is moving on, the Snapdragon 800 is their premier processor in their new high-end duo – of the Snapdragon 600 and 800 – and is said to bring a 75% performance increase on top of the current S4 Pro. The processor that’s running the Droid DNA, the Nexus 4 and Sony’s Xperia Z is already a very capable processor and makes the 75% increase even more of a bold claim from Qualcomm. The new 800 chipset comes packing the Krait 400 CPU, and perhaps the most interesting part of it all is that clock-speeds will run as high as 2.3 Ghz! Of course, these are just figures from the chip maker themselves and are likely the result of testing in bulky test units, getting the balance between heat and thickness in production devices will be difficult for OEMs.

As with the Tegra 4, the new Snapdragon processor will be able to handle 4K – or Ultra HD – content with no issues as well as record in 4K as well. There are improved radios for LTE and Wi-Fi to deliver faster speeds without a hit on battery as well. On the graphics side of things, the Adreno GPU is back and this time it’s the 330 that will be running the graphics, which is said to double the power of the Adreno 320, found in the S4 Pro. Qualcomm don’t seem to have too much to say about the 800 which leads us to believe that Nvidia will be first out of the gate and these new chips from Qualcomm won’t be hitting until towards the end of the year.

Where Qualcomm might have the upper hand in the smartphone game is with their decision to advertise direct to consumers, you’ve all seen a Snapdragon ad or two around the internet. Perhaps this is what Qualcomm are hoping will help their name sell a little better. I don’t think you’ll be hearing average consumers ask “Does this have the Snapdragon” at your local Verizon store just yet but, more and more people are waking up to the power of these processors. Where Nvidia has a larger stake in the tablet side of the market, Qualcomm have traditionally shipped more processors than anyone else and 2013 might well be no different.

What do you think, would you take Qualcomm’s latest and greatest over Nvidia’s? They’re both a long way off, but, which one have you got your eye on?