Snapdragon S4 Pro: Slow And Steady Wins The SoC Race
In the smartphone and tablet world, there’s a huge rush with new technology to be the first to bring it to market. Sure, that’s true for plenty of other electronics, as well, but with the kind of device turnover we see from smartphone users, as well as the incessant string of new releases from all the various manufacturers involved, this is one market where competition’s especially fierce. Everyone wants to have the newest thing on their phones, whether that’s a new Android build, a next-gen radio, or the latest System-on-a-Chip development. It’s that last one we’re taking a look at today, as a study in what’s to be gained by not fighting your way to the front of the pack, and instead taking the time to develop a superior product to those of your competitors.
Enter: The Quad-Core S4 Pro
Last week, we learned about the availability of the latest development hardware from Qualcomm, featuring one of the company’s new APQ8064 quad-core Snapdragon S4 chips. Some early benchmark figure left our jaws agape, as thoughts like “Tegra 3 who?” circled our heads.
Ever since we first started getting into multi-core smartphones with the LG Optimus 2X, there’s been a bit of an arms race between the major SoC players. Admittedly, the core wars didn’t start this fight, but they provided a new easy-to-compare metric smartphone shoppers could use to evaluate new models. NVIDIA has been successful in being first out the door, but has it done so at the expense of performance?
Just as the dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 invited similar dual-core designs from Samsung, TI, and Qualcomm, NVIDI was once again first with quad-core in its Tegra 3, and now we’re seeing some of those follow-up designs arrive. The Exynos 4 Quad gave us our first look at a company trying to do quad-core better than NVIDIA, and at that it largely succeeded. Now it’s looking like even Samsung’s effort is about to get overshadowed by Qualcomm.
Dual-Core Snapdragon S4s Set The Stage
Qualcomm’s been rightfully earning a reputation as the SoC manufacturer that swoops in with a design that may look a little stale on paper at first glance, but simply annihilates the competition. The dual-core Snapdragon S4 is arguably the hottest chip of 2012 so far, and even with these quad-core components available, it holds its own against them. We may have hemmed and hawed at first when learning of the S4 being substituted for quad-core chips in the LTE editions of some of this year’s more popular phones, but anyone who’s tried one out can attest to the fact that a well-done dual-core is right up there performance-wise with some quad-core designs.
If the dual-core S4 was on par with the quad-core Tegra 3, what does that mean for the proper quad-core S4 Pro? We realize benchmarks don’t quite accurately reflect real-world performance, but they can certainly give us a good idea of how chips stack up, and what the early S4 Pro’s numbers reveal is nothing short of amazing.
Let’s Get Benched
Quadrant scores have the S4 Pro off the charts, coming in with a score of nearly 7700, more than twice the figure the Tegra 3-powered Nexus 7 manages. Even against the better-than-N7-performing HTC One X, the S4 Pro development system still manages a 51% improvement over its Quadrant scores. Other benchmarks show a more subtle increase, but one that’s unquestionably pronounced. While the Exynos 4 Quad and Tegra 3 saw AnTuTu scores in the 11,000s, the S4 Pro manages closer to 14K.
Clearly, raw core count matters little, and just a few months more time in development can make a huge difference in SoC performance. Why not just take our time, not rush things, and have all our phones be just that much better?
First == Worst?
Look around at top-tier devices currently on the market – especially when it comes to tablets where we’re not so constrained by radio compatibility – and you’ll see the Tegra 3 name everywhere. All the benchmark figures in the world don’t matter much when actual retail availability is so overwhelming; you might prefer an Exynos 4 Quad tablet to a Tegra 3-based one, but where are your options? Being first to market with a new chip type makes you hugely visible to manufacturers, and once they start incorporating your products in their designs, they become locked-in, even if something better emerges closer to launch time.
First != Worst. First Is Just First
We don’t mean to fault NVIDIA here; early stabs at any new idea are always going to look less impressive when compared to later, more refined ones, and someone has to be first. NVIDIA also isn’t resting on its laurels, and has newly updated Tegra 3 designs in the pipeline (including those with LTE). Still, there are clearly some pretty big performance advantages to taking one’s time, and it looks like Qualcomm will continue to breeze in after everyone else has already made a big show, and just knock our socks off.
What’s going to be the next chapter in this SoC race? Cortex-A15 architecture. The first chips could hit later this year, but look for similar developments to this year’s quad-core saga to unfold in 2013 as everyone and his brother comes out with their own Cortex-A15 designs.