The CPU (Central Processing Unit) of computers has undergone a lot of changes since the early days of desktop PCs. Today, your choices include any of a number of AMD or Intel processors. These processors are serving more and more functions which used to be handled by separate chips (CPU; ALU; Memory Controller; L1, L2, and L3 Cache). Combining functionality into fewer and fewer chips reduces cost, power consumption, and overall heat — all things desirable on a mobile platform.
Mobile processors are undergoing the same transformation. Today the race is between Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Samsung’s Hummingbird.
Between the two chips, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon has the cooler name, but that’s not a deciding factor (well, it shouldn’t be). Today’s Snapdragon is an ARM Cortex-A8 processor running at 1GHz and comes with a bunch of other features bundled inside.
The Snapdragon isn’t just a CPU, it’s an entire system on a chip (or SoC). This, obviously, has advantages, making handsets run cooler, smaller, and chew up less power. Some of today’s most advanced handsets run on Snapdragon, including Google’s Nexus One, HTC’s HD2, and Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G.
When building its processor Qualcomm didn’t use the ARM Cortex-A8 reference design, they started from the ground up from. This decision was very expensive and resource intensive, but has yielded an estimated 5% improvement in instructions per clock cycle over the stock Cortex-A8 design. Doing this has allowed Qualcomm to tightly integrate additional features such as GPS and various wireless/cell network support which reduces additional chips needed by cell phone manufacturers. Building these (and other) features into the chip allows for a smaller phone design or room for extra chips.
The next Snapdragon will offer dual-core processors, which are not supported by Cortex-A8 architecture. Because Qualcomm custom built Snapdragon they can extend its functionality. Multiple cores can boost processing speed while balancing performance with power consumption. Look for these chips to be available by the end of 2010.
For graphics support, Qualcomm bought AMD’s Imageon mobile-graphics division a few years ago and plans on adding hardware acceleration for Adobe’s Flash in the upcoming 45nm chip. Greater processing power requires more power, but smaller chip architecture consumes less power; hopefully the two combined will see no notable increase in power consumption. We’ll have to wait and see.
Samsung’s Hummingbird doesn’t sound as fierce as Snapdragon, but at 1GHz, it holds its own. The first production Android phone that we’ve seen the Hummingbird in is Samsung’s own Galaxy i9000 Android-powered phone.
Unlike Qualcomm, Samsung did not build their chip from the ground-up, they did, however hire a semiconductor company called Intrinsity, to customize the Cortex-A8 in the Hummingbird to optimize the performance of certain core functions to help boost the chip’s performance. Samsung has said that these optimizations help it to “outperform all other processors on the market” (including Qualcomm). Graphics is where the Hummingbird really shines, rendering 2D and 3D video faster than Snapdragon-powered phones. What’s more, Hummingbird is said to already be at the 45nm mark.
Why would Samsung make their own chip? Put simply, because they can. Samsung has the facilities and expertise needed to make their own chip, and by so doing they avoid the need of purchasing chips from another vendor (in this case, their competition: Qualcomm).
Both Snapdragon and Hummingbird are based off the Cortex-A8. Next-generation chips will be based upon the Cortex-A9, ARM’s forthcoming processor architecture. Cortex-A9 emphasizes the importance of the 45nm production scale as well multiple cores.
These changes, it’s hoped, hint at a 25% improvement in instructions per clock cycle. This is where clock-speeds become troublesome. Theoretically, an A9 running at 1GHz will outperform an A8 running at 1.25GHz.
So, whether you prefer Snapdragon to Hummingbird, the biggest winner is the consumer. Competition drives innovation.