In the mobile world, Apple and Qualcomm are the two most important chip makers. Since 2010, Apple has excelled at building its own Ax “system on a chip” (SoC) for its iPhone and iPads, while Qualcomm powers nearly every premium Android phone with its Snapdragon series of chips.With the release of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, Apple has jumped ahead with its latest A9 chip. Now Qualcomm aims to catch up with its latest generation chip, the Snapdragon 820, which will power high-end Android phones in 2016. So Snapdragon 820 Vs. Apple A9 is an interesting comparison to make.
(Samsung is also serious about its mobile SoCs. This week, it announced the Exynos 8890. We’ll be seeing this new chip inside its next generation line of Galaxy phones in 2016, though we’ll have to wait and see exactly which Galaxy phones the Exynos will appear in — some versions of previous Galaxy phones included Snapdragon chips.)
At this point, it may be a stretch to compare the performance of these two chips, since there are no Snapdragon 820-powered phones on the market yet. (The first phones with the 820 in them will start hitting the market sometime in early 2016, Qualcomm said.) Performance can vary drastically depending on how each phone maker implements the chip. But here’s how some of the details are stacking up so far.
The move to 64-bit mobile chips began with the iPhone 5s in 2013. In an effort to get to a 64-bit architecture, Qualcomm shelved its custom cores in the Snapdragon 810 and adopted off-the-shelf cores from ARM – quad-core Cortex-A57 and quad-core Cortex-A53. This was unfamiliar territory for Qualcomm and led to less optimization, analysts said.
Thankfully, Qualcomm is going back to its custom-built CPU cores with Kryo, its own 64-bit solution. The Snapdragon 820 is a quad-core design that will boast a 2.2 gigahertz clock speed. Qualcomm claims the Kyro cores will run twice as fast and be 30% more energy efficient than the 810 — which was plagued by reports of overheating, though industry sources have told me these rumors were overblown. The most important update to getting the 820 to run cooler is Qualcomm’s move to Samsung’s more efficient 14-nanometer manufacturing process (versus the 810′s 20nm node built by Taiwanese chip manufacturer TSMC).
Apple’s CPU is a dual core on the ARMv8 architecture, running at 1.85Ghz, with 2GB of RAM. At the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus launch event, Apple claimed 70% faster processing than the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Benchmark testsperformed by HotHardware showed that the iPhone 6s Plus performed better than the Samsung Galaxy S6 in single-core performance, while the Samsung phone beat out the iPhone in multi-core performance. (The latest Samsung Galaxy phones use the Korean electronics giant’s own Exynos SoC — it dropped Qualcomm’s Snapdragon that it had used in some versions of the Galaxy phones.)
For Apple’s latest phones, the company went with two different chip manufacturers to build the A9: TSMC and Samsung. TSMC made the chip at the 16 nanometer process, and Samsung was at 14nm. Unfortunately, it appears that dual sourcing the A9 led to some minor differences in performance — third-party benchmark tests showed that TSMC-built A9 chips gave the 6s phones up to two hours more battery power than the A9 chips manufactured by Samsung. Apple’s responded that the battery life differences only varied 2%-3% in real-world usage. “Our testing and customer data show the actual battery life of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, even taking into account variable component differences, vary within just 2-3% of each other,” Apple said in a statement to TechCrunch.
4K has finally made its way onto most phones. Ever since the 810, Qualcomm has boasted about its chip’s ability to both capture and stream at 4K resolution. The Snapdragon 820 will be using the next generation of Qualcomm’s graphics processing unit, the Adreno 530. Qualcomm claims the 530 will achieve graphical performance that is 40% faster and up to 40% lower power consumption over the Adreno 430 in the Snapdragon 810. The unit will supports 4K video resolution at 60 frames per second.
Apple’s PowerVR GT7600 is a six-core graphics engine in the A9, according to a teardown from Chipworks. Apple claims 90% faster graphical performance over the iPhone 6 in marketing the new phones. According tobenchmark tests performed by HotHardware using GFXBench, the A9′s graphics performance is 25% faster than the next highest performing phones, which are Samsung’s latest phones: the Galaxy S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and the Note 5.
The Snapdragon 820 will come with a new image signal processing unit, the 14-bit Qualcomm Spectra. This part of the silicon will support three cameras on a phone — two on the back and one on the front. Qualcomm claims the new image processing capabilities will provide “DSLR-quality photography” in the next generation of Android smartphones at 25 megapixels.
Qualcomm has also been pushing the whole notion of “computational photography” that the Snapdragon 820 will enable. A more software-oriented feature in this is Qualcomm’s cognitive computing effort called Zeroth that will be open for phone developers to build features off of. Zeroth can recognize patterns and detect objects in front of the phone’s camera. This could be used, say, for when the user is at the beach and they pull out their phone to take a picture. Zeroth would recognize that the user is outside, the weather is sunny, they’re at the beach and that their dog is in the picture. Based on all that context, Zeroth would then adjust the camera to best suit that specific environment. Further, Qualcomm has shown how Zeroth can categorize a user’s photo library and group them based on criteria like if it’s an outdoor setting or individual people.
Apple’s new phones get a better image signal processor (which doesn’t get any sort of sexy name) as well as a 12MP rear camera sensor and a 5MP forward-facing camera. The cameras on the previous iPhone 6 and 6 Plus included just 8MP and 1.2MP image sensors. In an important update over prior iPhones, the new iPhones supports 4K video capture. But these improvement still aren’t enough to be the best. Respected photography site DxOMark put the new iPhones through its tests and found that the cameras can’t beat some of the better Android phones out there. The camera on the iPhone 6s received a score of 82 from DxOMark. Meanwhile, Sony’s Xperia Z5 received 87, the Galaxy S6 Edge a 86, and the Nexus 6P a 84.
In the mobile era, the most important technology Qualcomm has brought to the world is its advanced LTE cellular modems. It’s what has allowed Qualcomm to become such an essential player in the mobile world, while also staying ahead of the competition for now. As such, Apple goes to Qualcomm for its cellular modems. iPhone 6s and 6s Plus use Qualcomm’s MDM9625M Baseband Processor, which allows maximum download speeds of 300Mbps and 50Mbps upload speed. That download speed is double the speeds of the modem inside the iPhone 6.
In Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 820, the company integrates its so-called X12 modem into the SoC. The X12 will enable download speeds of up to 600 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 150 Mbps. The 820′s WiFi radio also allows for WiFi calling and hand offs between the cellular networks and WiFi, as well as the ability to aggregate WiFi and LTE radios to boost overall data speeds.
While it may look like Qualcomm is beating out Apple by using the latest and greatest in its homegrown cellular modem technology, the modem speeds are all theoretical for now; carriers don’t support these kinds of speeds yet on their networks.
While we’re still waiting to see how Snapdragon 820-powered phones actually perform, Qualcomm has cooked up an impressive chip and has begun seeding it out to phone makers. The Snapdragon 810 was a bit of a mess for Qualcomm — Samsung dropped Qualcomm for its own Exynos processors. That in turn dragged down much of Qualcomm’s revenue and stock for 2015. It was a rough year for the San Diego chip maker. But things are looking better so far with the 820 at this early stage in the game: Qualcomm has publicly stated that the 820 is currently being designed into 60 phones.
“The 820 is going to make a really compelling chip when it hits the market,” said Kevin Krewell, a principal analyst at Tirias Research.
The differences between Apple’s A9 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chips will likely be pretty minor, Krewell said. What really matters obviously is the kinds of phones built on top of the 820. “The 820 is fully capable of competing with the A9,” Krewell said. “It’s just a matter of having the right phone maker come in and unleashing the power of that chip, putting it into the right form factor and the right product.”