We have recently covered how Apple have disrupted the semiconductor and System-on-Chip markets by designing new mobile chipsets on an annual basis, twice as fast as the old industry convention. The introduction of 64-bit mobile processors in 2013 caught the establishment on the hop and since then, semiconductor providers for the Android scene have scrabbling around to catch up. In 2015, the state of the mobile System-on-Chip market is very interesting indeed, with different manufacturers coming up with different ideas as to how to tackle the problem of optimizing chipsets for mobile applications. Modern System-on-Chips encompass the application processor cores, the GPU, Internet radios plus location sensors. However, the headline information is usually the number of cores and the clock speed, plus processing or graphical benchmarks. What would happen if we lined up the current (and impending) flagship chipsets and measured them? We do not have a definitive answer at the moment as these chipsets do not reside in the same hardware, and several are as yet unreleased in devices, but the source website has taken the information we know and presented it graphically. Several of these chipsets are yet to appear in commercially available devices and so the results in the field may be different to the results showing here.
Before we look at the numbers, when it comes to processing information within a CPU, there are two broad benchmark scores: single core and multicore. Single core performance measures how well one of the processor cores is able to compute information whereas, logically enough, a multi-core benchmark combines all available processor cores. As such, multi-core benchmark scores flatter those chipsets with more individual processor cores, but for a real world comparison, the single core benchmark is more relevant, as the majority of applications use one processor core. A small number use two and an even smaller number use three or more.
As you can see by the table above, Apple’s custom A9 chipset rules the roost when it comes to single core performance. Apple’s chipsets are either dual or triple core and are thoroughly optimized for the rest of the hardware and software. The data for 2015 shows that the Apple A9 still manages to outperform the rest of the chipsets, although the gap has certainly narrowed. Of the other chipsets, the Samsung Exynos 8890 narrowly outperforms the Snapdragon 820. The Exynos is based around eight cores in a big.LITTLE configuration whereas the Snapdragon 820 is based around four cores also arranged in a big.LITTLE fashion. We’d expect the Exynos chipset to perform very strongly in the multi-core benchmark, an area where Samsung have traditionally performed strongly. Both the Exynos 8890 and Snapdragon 820 use a custom application core design, as does the Apple A9. By the term “custom core,” this means that the chip designer has modified an ARM reference design so as to improve performance (as measured by power consumption, heat output, or computing power).
The MediaTek MT6797 (Helio X20) and HiSilicon Kirin 950 are left trailing the competition. Both of these chipsets place use a big.LITTLE architecture, but the MediaTek chip has three tiers to the Kirin 950’s two. The high performance application core is the ARM Cortex-A72, and the compiled data shows that the MediaTek MT6797 has a small advantage in single core performance. The MediaTek has a dual core ARM Cortex-A72 cluster whereas the Kirin 950 has a quad core cluster of the same type.
What does the information tell us? It shows us that Apple’s chip designers know a thing or two about optimizing application cores, but that Samsung and Qualcomm are not so far behind. ARM’s reference cores are a little slower, but have required significantly less development costs. However, stepping back from the late 2015 / early 2016 arms race, what is perhaps more significant is how today and tomorrow’s single core application performance is significantly greater than the performance achieved in 2014. Qualcomm’s early 2014 flagship chipset, the Snapdragon 801, shows less than half the single core performance of the Snapdragon 820 as one example. Perhaps owning a device running one of the less powerful chipsets won’t be such a bad thing after all.