Qualcomm ups the chipset ante

27 Feb 2012

At MWC all eyes are on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon chipset the S4 Krait and the expected launch of high-end phones that will be using this chipset. Early benchmarks have surprised everyone, not so much for being the fastest, but at the huge margin with which it blows the competition out of the water.

The MSM 8960 Krait is a dual-core System on a Chip fabbed at 28mm at TSMC clocked at 1.5 GHz. Its Adreno 225 graphics is now clocked at 400 MHz, up from the previous-generation dual-core Scorpion S3’s 266 MHz.

Reviewers have called the performance insane, between 20% and 240% faster than the competition. More importantly, on all but the most heavily multi-threaded optimised benchmarks, the dual-core S4 is significantly faster than the quad-core NVidia Tegra 3.

On the Linpack benchmark, the reference Qualcomm reference phone boasts 106 MFLOPS to the Asus Transformer Prime 1.4-GHz Tegra 3 quad-core’s 48 MFLOPS on the single-threaded benchmark. In other words, the architecture is so much more efficient with more than double the performance and just a 100 MHz speed-bump.

On the multi-threaded benchmark, it boasts 208 MFLOPS (almost exactly double) to the Tegra 3’s 137, showing how well the memory and controller pipelines scale and still blowing the best quad-core competition out of the water despite it only have two cores.

Of course, the question is how will reference designs translate into shipping devices, power and cooling concerns often putting a dent in performance.

HTC’s newest flagship, the HTC One X ships rather confusingly with the Tegra 3 in the global HSPA+ version and the Krait S4 in the US-bound LTE version.

I had asked John Stefanac how Qualcomm would regain the momentum with Snapdragon given that it was late to both the dual-core and quad-core parties, Nvidia in particular having gained a substantial lead by launching first and gaining mind share.

The answer was twofold. Nvidia lacked radio expertise and secondly, Qualcomm was going to win not by being first, but by being the best.

I had dismissed this statement as one of those, “of course he would say that” statements. Little did I realise just how much better the S4 was.

Of course, the other chipset to keep watch on is the Intel Medfield Atom. It has been almost six years since Intel sold off its XScale ARM line to Marvell, an eternity in this industry. Before that, many of the Windows-Mobile era smartphones were running on Intel silicon. One wonders if they rue the day. But that was an era of Intel on the ascendancy, with no real competition in CPUs taking on the world with Wimax and Atom, not that things went quite to plan.

The LG550 prototype whet appetites but never shipped. Intel’s own OS strategy went from Moblin to Meego to abandoning it and settling for Android on X86. Today, Atom Netbooks have not quite taken on the mass market as expected, tablets having created the market Intel had originally envisioned.

Everyone is interested in the Orange Santa-Clara, the first Medfield phone manufactured by Gigabyte, announced with Intel Inside. But with its midfield billing, the sheer speed of the new Snapdragon Krait, and the rise of Huawei’s own SOC design one wonders if Intel’s vision of X86 everywhere will go the same way as Wimax becoming as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi. Time will tell.

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