The four major ARM chip manufacturers are seeing the tablet revolution and smartphone growth bring great opportunities and the pressure that comes along with it. Nvidia is taking a major lead to start 2011 with their Tegra 2, which is the first dual core processor to make it to the market. It is being featured in a number of products so far. TI realizes this and is getting the news about its dual core OMAP 4 out at their earnings report.
With all four chip firms having new dual core options on the way, this is the perfect time to compare their offerings and see what they have in store.
When we talk about OMAP, Snapdragon, Tegra, or Hummingbird, we're really talking about a system-on-a-chip (SoC). There's more to it than just the clock speed.
Samsung first introduced their Hummingbird SoC inside their Galaxy S lineup. All of the manufacturers are using ARM instruction sets, which allow the OS to be compatible with all of the differences within the chips, without the need for specific coding.
Samsung used 45 nanometer (nm) manufacturing tech, which describes the amount of transistors they can fit onto a single chip. The Hummingbird uses ARM Cortex-A8 architecture with the ARMv7 instruction set. This part of the SoC is commonly called the applications processor.
While the ARM A8 is the basis of the chip, Samsung, along with partner Intrisity, made a good number of modifications to make it more their own. For instance Intrinsity changed the logic design of the standard A8, allowing certain operations to be completed with fewer instructions, and improvement that made their design 5-10% faster compared to ARM's original tech.
Samsung has emphasized power management within their chips, while maintaining the 1 GHz speed in the Galaxy S. The upcoming Infuse will feature a 1.2 GHz Hummingbird. Samsung features another advantage: ARM NEON multimedia extension. The Hummingbird, compared to its competitors when released, had far better hardware video encoding and decoding, high quality graphics, and better sound processing.
Last but not least, the SoC also features the GPU (Graphics Processor Unit) for the phone. In Samsung's unit the PowerVR SGX540 GPU was introduced and outclassed its ARM-based competitors. In terms of 3D or anything GPU-intensive, the Snapdragon (see below) really could not compete.
The Intrinsity-branded Hummingbird was also what powered the Apple iPhone 4. Samsung did well last round. Their next generation dual core Orion SoC is still not to market yet so they are now involved in a catch-up game with Nvidia.
The Snapdragon was based on the ARM Cortex-A8 because Qualcomm designed their own core named Scorpion. The two cores do have a number of similarities and the Scorpion does use the ARMv7 instruction set.
Just as in the Hummingbird's case, the Snapdragon did have an advantage over standard ARM A8 in instructions per clock cycle. It was manufactured using 65 nm technology which hindered its possibilities.
The next generation of Snapdragon which powers new devices such as Desire Z, Thunderbolt, and Desire HD is built using the smaller 45 nm technology. This allows for more transistors and more performance enhancing tweaks to be accomplished at the same 1 GHz of the previous Snapdragon.
On the GPU side of the Snapdragon SoC, the original used an AMD-sourced Adreno 200, which was obviously underpowered compared to the competition.In the next iteration Qualcomm rectified this with the Adreno 205 which is in the current Snapdragon. The new GPU outperforms the Hummingbird in 3D performance.
The use of Qualcomm SoC does provide an advantage that none of the other manufacturers have. Qualcomm combines GPS and cellular antennas to their SoC, allowing the phone design to be more compact, and a much simpler choice then using multiple pieces. That is a major reason the Qualcomm chips are so popular, the simplified process.
Texas Instruments OMAP
Texas Instruments started the specifications war when their OMAP SoC powered the original Motorola Droid in late 2009. As with Samsung, Texas Instruments licenses the Cortex-A8 from ARM, and makes additional improvements to enhance performance. Their OMAP34x series are made using the older 65 nm process, the OMAP36x use the newer 45 nm technology.
All of the OMAP3xx SoC use the same PowerVR SGX530 GPU. When this GPU was first released it was the most powerful option on the market. It was substantially faster than the original Snapdragon unit, but the Hummingbird's performance began to show its age. However it did have the NEON ARM instruction set also found in the Hummingbird, that allowed phones like the Droid X and Droid 2 to keep up in multimedia performance.
TI realizes that they are behind when it comes to getting their dual core processor to market. The OMAP4 will be featured in a number of devices this year to be sure most notably it will power the BlackBerry Playbook. They will feature a nuumber of enhancements over the single core OMAP3 and are based on dual Cortex-A9 1 GHz cores. They will feature the PowerVR SGX540 GPU and be going head-to-head against the Nvidia and the Tegra 2.
Nvidia is originally known as a graphics card company, but just as the technology market has shifted so has their business model. Their first attempt to enter the smartphone market with their original Tegra device was just short of a disaster. That lack of success, however, lead them to start production of their next generation Tegra 2 ahead of their competition. That's the reason the Tegra 2 is the first dual core SoC to market, and powering a majority of the new phones and tablets being released this year.
The Tegra 2 SoC uses tweaked dual ARM Cortex-A9 cores clocked at 1 GHz and uses the ARMv7 instruction set. They are built using a 40 nm manufacturing process which allowed the two cores to fit onto the same die. Unlike Qualcomm, who plans to be able to control each core separately, the Tegra 2 must have both cores operating at the same speed at all times. Enhancements allow it to power devices containing up to 12 megapixel camera sensors.
In terms of GPU, don't forget that Nvidia's bread and butter comes from the GPU market. Their core features a GeForce Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) chip called an 8 core GPU. This is the most powerful unit to make it into a smartphone or tablet thus far, and it will draw less power then its competitors, allowing for better battery life.
That was a comparison of the major players in the SoC market and what likely is powering your smartphone of today and tomorrow. Manufacturers such as Samsung and TI choose to stick to ARM's designs and come up with unique ways to add features and performance to their specific chips. Qualcomm has chosen to custom design their own custom SoC and add more necessary features and manufacturers have loved the integrated design. The Tegra 2 is an entirely new beast and began the dual core revolution. The vote is still not in on battery life, but the performance of the new chip is stellar.
All four SoC makers have individual features that set them apart, and each have an advantage in one area or another. We have to wait and see what happens when all four have dual core processors in the market. Which chip maker do you guys prefer?