|Why Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 has the competition on the defensive |
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After months of teasing and hinting, Qualcomm has finally taken the wraps off of its new Snapdragon S4 mobile system-on-a-chip (SoC). The MSM8960, featuring the Krait core, is the first ARM chip in the company’s stable of next generation mobile parts, and it’s got some official benchmark numbers that are sure to impress. Perhaps most importantly, the new Snapdragon is pulling off these striking feats of computational might with just two cores as other manufacturers are working toward four.
Qualcomm, unlike most ARM chip makers, does not license the architecture for its application processors directly from ARM Holdings. Instead, it designs its own cores in-house and simply licenses the ARM instruction set. At the most basic level, Qualcomm’s Krait core is more advanced than Cortex-A9, the current standard from ARM, and it may even best the next-generation Cortex-A15 core.
Snapdragon S4 is going to be significant the next time you’re shopping for a device for several reasons, not least among them the raw speed. With two 1.5GHz Krait cores, Qualcomm’s new part was able to thoroughly thrash dual-core ARM chips in most tests, and even beat Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-core SoC in benchmarks that don’t rely heavily on multi-core optimization. A device running on this new breed of Snapdragon will have much more power to play with and lower power consumption thanks to a 28nm manufacturing process. Other ARM SoCs are still at 40nm.
Snapdragon S4 is also going to support a wide array of hardware on the chip itself. It has always been Qualcomm’s policy to integrate the cellular modem with the SoC, whereas other manufacturers rely on external components for that. The S4 will support on-die LTE, HSPA+, and CDMA radios — making it the first ever SoC to integrate LTE radio, and also the first 28nm LTE part. That means longer lasting, thinner, lighter devices.
Video and gaming performance might be the one stumbling block for the first run of S4 chips. Qualcomm opted not to wait for the Adreno 3xx GPUs to be ready for use, so the MSM8960 uses the Adreno 225, which is close in performance to other GPUs currently on the market. The 225 does add dual-channel video memory and a unified shader architecture, but the real magic will come when future S4 chips ship with Adreno 305.
Real world battery life claims will have to wait to be settled as the development platform Qualcomm is handing out is not tuned for battery performance. Each manufacturer thinks it’s on the right track, though. Snapdragons are capable of dynamically altering the clock speed of each core individually to respond to system demands. Qualcomm says this leads to better battery life in most situations. Nvidia says its system of switching cores completely off when not needed, and running a low-power companion core is better.
If anything is made clear by these first Snapdragon S4 tests, it’s that you should not only be concerned with the number of cores. That makes little more sense than the gigahertz race years ago. A chip’s features and architecture can make the user experience better regardless of the number of cores. Nvidia might have thought getting to quad-core first assured it victory, but Qualcomm’s Krait core is more similar to the next generation Cortex-A15 than it is to Tegra’s A9. TI and Samsung are expected to launch dual-core Cortex-A15 SoCs this year, but Qualcomm is also planning to ramp up to a quad-core Krait this year.
The first dual-core Snapdragon S4 devices will be debuted at Mobile World Congress in just a few days, among them the rumored Asus PadFone. You will be able to get phones and tablets running the S4 in your hot little hands in the first half of 2012.