Snapdragon 810

Founded in 1985, Qualcomm has made the processors that enable our mobile devices since it started making CDMA base stations in 1990. Since then the company has focused its attention on SoCs – systems on a chip – that are at the core of today’s smartphones and tablets. Qualcomm is even taking aim at the processors that run in servers and datacenters and Snapdragon processors have even found their way into our smartwatches. Then the Snapdragon 810 was announced, and things started to go downhill – quickly.

Snapdragon 810

To bring you up to speed on the Snapdragon 810 debacle, the chip powers some of the highest-end phones on the market right now – but it’s not in all of the flagships. Samsung, for instance, opted for its own Exynos chips in the Galaxy S6, and the new LG G4 comes with the slightly lower-end Snapdragon 808.

Snapdragon 810 overheating 2Decisions like those have helped fuel rumors that there are “problems” with the Snapdragon 810 which center around “overheating” – despite reports that the 810 actually runs cooler than similar devices powered by the Snapdragon 801.

“I am very much aware of the various concerns in the market about the 810, but the chip’s performance is quite satisfactory,” said LG’s vice president for mobile, Woo Ram-chan.

Qualcomm’s VP of marketing Tim McDonough even went as far as stating that the rumors of the 810 overheating are “rubbish” and that “there was not an overheating problem with the Snapdragon 810 in commercial devices”. He concedes that earlier development hardware ran hot, but somewhere along the way, rumors about pre-release 810 components morphed into this tale that the final commercial chip was similarly compromised due to the way it handled the heat via “thermal throttling” to limit temperatures. This explanation, in turn, resulted in people claiming the chip was “bad” because it had to resort to thermal throttling – a process where heat generated by the SoC is mitigated by scaling back the chip’s speed – hampering its performance.

Thermal Throttling

Thermal throttling is nothing new. Back when I sold computers for a local PC manufacturer we had an Intel sales rep stop by and give my employees a demonstration of his company’s processor. This rep opened the computer case and unclipped the heatsink from the Intel processor.

zalman-copper-heatsinkHeatsinks are essentially big chunks of thermally conductive metal (usually aluminum or copper, or both) pressed tightly against a chip to help draw heat away from the microcircuitry and dissipate into the air through the thermal mass of the heatsink.

Desktop PCs typically use fans to force air across those heatsinks, but some setups use water to draw the heat away and exhaust it outside the case. In either configuration, keeping that heatsink tightly coupled to the processor is important, since even a small air gap can provide enough insulation to burn out a chip.

The Intel rep fired up a benchmarking utility and we watched the temperature on the CPU climb. Eventually the processor began to throttle back, despite still having a large heatsink still in place.

That’s when he did something insane: he removed the heatsink.

We all gasped in horror, but the rep reassured us that he’d buy the $500+ processor if it burned out. The benchmark ran slower and slower, but it kept going, and the chip never did burn out.

Why does all this matter? Take a look at your smartphone, where’s the heatsink?

My entire smartphone doesn’t even weigh as much as the Zalman heatsink pictured here. How do our current smartphones, tablets, and wearables keep from overheating without the huge chunks of metal and large fans that our desktop and laptop PCs require?

Our smartphones rely almost entirely on thermal throttling to manage the heat produced by their SoCs.

Damage Control

Yup, every chip by every manufacturer in every smartphone uses thermal throttling to keep itself from burning up. Yes, that slows its performance, but that’s the way they are designed to work.

According to McDonough, the whole “Snapdragon 810 overheating” rumor looks like “someone very artfully took [reports of hot-running 810 dev hardware] and used it to fuel the rumors”. While some might call that paranoid, the damage may have been done.

Qualcomm is hurrying to bring the Snapdragon 820 to market in the hopes it will restore confidence in its chips. However, MediaTek, Samsung, Intel, and others are all making chips to compete against Qualcomm’s offerings. Put another way, Qualcomm’s perceived “stumble” – whether true or not – may make this the perfect time for another SoC maker to take the lead.

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