Qualcomm have announced to investors that they are reducing their expectations for the second second half of 2015 because of slower sales of their Snapdragon processor line up. This news, whilst unfortunate for Qualcomm in the short term, should not be entirely unexpected for two reasons. The first is that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 processor is not powering the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge devices as instead Samsung opted for their new internal Exynos 7420 processor. And the second is because Qualcomm’s current high end SoCs, system on chips, are not particularly competitive and do relatively little to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the Snapdragon family has suddenly, after years of seemingly being the go-to processor range for Android manufacturers, has fallen from grace. The reason for this appears to very much be associated with the shift from the 32-bit ARM v7 processor core architecture to 64-bit ARM v8 architecture. The newer generation 64-bit processor cores are more efficient than their older cousins and we have seen two designs being used by Qualcomm: the Cortex-A53 as the high efficiency core and the Cortex-A57 as the high performance, but greedier, processor core. Unfortunately, when it comes to user experience and benchmark numbers, the Cortex-A57 processor is in service not significantly more powerful than previous generation 32-bit ARM cores.
Why is this? It comes down to complexity and heat. If we take a look at HTC’s 2014 flagship device, the One M8, this came with a 2.3 GHz quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor in most markets. Some of the Asian markets had a 2.5 GHz maximum clock speed. There’s the Adreno 330 GPU for video performance. Now let’s take a look at the 2015 flag One M9, which has a big.LITTLE Snapdragon 810 processor consisting of a quad core processor based around the Cortex-A53, which may be clocked at up to 1.5 GHz, combined with a quad core Cortex-A57 unit, with a maximum clock speed of 2.0 GHz. The 810 comes with the Adreno 430 GPU for high quality, high performance graphics and has higher specifications across the board compared with the Adreno 330. The Snapdragon 810 is a more complicated processor – it has twice the number of processor cores and a more complicated, more powerful GPU – but the on-device performance boost is relatively small. The reason for this is because modern, cramped, thin smartphones are unpleasantly hot places for processors to occupy and in use, the more modern Cortex-A57 processor core as used in the Snapdragon 810, in the HTC One M9, rarely exceeds around 1.6 GHz. To keep its cool, the device deliberately throttles back the processor cores… which nullifies some of the performance advantage.
Going forwards, however, Qualcomm have a few tricks up their sleeve. They’re widely believed to be working on a custom designed processor core (similar to their older custom Krait core) for use in future processors, plus ARM are working on new processor cores. We’ve already seen other manufacturers incorporating the Cortex-A72 core into up and coming processor designs, such as MediaTek. The Snapdragon 810 has been something of a disappointment but still a capable processor, just slightly less capable than the competition. Qualcomm need to avoid repeating the same mistakes going forward.