AH PrimeTime: Qualcomm Need To Raise Their Snapdragon 810 Game

Qualcomm Logo AH2

Rumors and stories regarding the Snapdragon 810’s overheating issue are still following Qualcomm around like a bad smell, and unfortunately, Qualcomm have not made life any easier for themselves by seemingly denying that there is an issue and releasing obfuscating information and reports. Qualcomm have come close to blaming Samsung for starting rumors about the processor so as to benefit the Exynos processor, through to stating that overheating issues with the Snapdragon 810 were restricted to pre-production processors only and are, essentially, a part of the normal process or refining a given chipset. The cynic in me considers that many pre-release hardware teething issues persist in the production device, but perhaps toned with software tweaks. To consider one of the more famous hardware fluffs: Apple didn’t magically re-engineer the iPhone 4’s antenna when it was released in 2010, but instead advised users to hold it differently as they adjusted the software to compensate.

What of the facts? It can be difficult to sift through the rumors and stories out there, but here’s what we do know: both the LG G Flex 2 and HTC One M9 have had software updates designed to improve (reduce) the skin temperature of the device. Pre-release software was not too hand-friendly, whereas current production software keeps things cooler. However, the software update doesn’t magically improve the heat sink of the device but instead it throttles the processor in order to keep things cooler. By throttling the processor, we mean a combination of running it at lower clock speeds (and therefore voltages) or, for the big.LITTLE architecture of the Snapdragon 810, deactivating the high power ARM Cortex-A57 cores and instead switching back to the Cortex-A53 cores, which run at a lower frequency and are cooler, less power-using designs by default. In other words, the processor is hobbled. It’s less powerful than before the adjustment.

A number of websites, most notably Anandtech, benchmarked the Snapdragon 810-powered HTC One M9 and found that whilst it was more powerful compared with the Snapdragon 801-powered HTC One M8, the performance improvement depended on the task at hand but was around fifteen percent. When you think about it, the M9 packs a lot more processor firepower compared with the M8 but only shows a relatively small improvement in performance. The reason for this? Because the M9 cannot flex its processor muscle without overheating and being uncomfortable to hold. This means that the A57 processor cores are more often than not simply shut down and the device uses the A53 cores.

In a rebuff to the overheating stories, Qualcomm all but named Samsung as slamming the Snapdragon 810 to benefit their own semiconductor technologies and in particular, the Exynos 7420. On a testbench, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 and Samsung Exynos 7420 have similar performance thanks to a similar architecture, but in a device the Samsung’s smaller die size (14nm compared with 20nm for the Snapdragon 810) and lower power consumption results in lower heat production. This in turn means that the device can run harder for longer and so scores much better in benchmark tests. Samsung have stated that they went with their own in-house processor because it was the best on the market, which is not to say that the Snapdragon 810 is a bad processor, simply not as good as the Exynos 7420. Going by benchmarks, this appears to be the case, although we regular readers will know, a benchmark score should be taken with a degree of skepticism.

We also have the LG’s decision to use the Snapdragon 808 in the G4 whereby LG’s mainstream flagship device for 2015 is using a less-than-flagship Qualcomm System-on-Chip, the Snapdragon 808. The main difference is that the 808 loses two of the higher powered ARM Cortex-A57 processor cores compared with the Snapdragon 810 and some GPU differences. Given that the indications are that the Snapdragon 810 relies much more on the A53 cores, this is probably not so detrimental. That the 808 has a lower clock speed will make a difference for short term performance, but as we have seen over a number of tests, the LG G4 outperforms the Snapdragon 810 when stressed for certain benchmarks. Yes: there are differences between the Snapdragon 808 and 810, but it appears that LG were happy with the compromise in going for the lesser processor. Of course, when not stressed there will be no practical difference between the two processors.

Where does this leave Qualcomm? The rebuff that the overheating issue was only an issue on pre-production devices doesn’t hold water, as production devices have the same hardware weakness masked by a software tweak that is the equivalent of gaffer (or duct) tape over an issue. It may mean that manufacturers and customers have bought a device that is incapable of running at maximum performance for anything other than very short periods of time. Will this matter? To most people, perhaps not. However, it does mean that a device running the 810 may be noticeably less responsive than something running the Exynos 7420 as the Snapdragon will spend most of its time running with just the lower powered A53 cores.

I don’t believe Qualcomm are in such a pickle about this: the Snapdragon 810 can be tamed by software tweaks that will keep the processor running cooler and slower. We have seen the processor used in a number of designs. Losing the Samsung deal will have caused a temporary revenue hit for Qualcomm, but the business will have recognized the threat of Samsung using their in-house SoCs for some time now. Qualcomm may have lost customer mindshare and technological parity with their Samsung semiconductor competitor, but we’ve no evidence that this is the start of a trend. Before too long, Qualcomm will be introducing their own custom core designs and hopefully raising their game.

What is disappointing is that Qualcomm have either misunderstood issues with their own product, or attempted to cover up these issues, in a world where information is quickly and easily spread and where, right or wrong, technology websites pick up a news story and refuse to put it down until the issue has been exhausted. Perhaps the Snapdragon 810 story would have been forgotten about if Qualcomm spoke up and explained that the processor had a higher heat output than they would have liked, which meant it had to be underclocked in a smartphone chassis? Here’s where I’d like to see Qualcomm really raising their game.