Despite its relatively geeky nature, the processor has become an increasingly important stat on the latest smartphone hardware’s spec sheets. But to appreciate its importance it’s not really necessary to know the intricate workings of each one. This year we’ve seen several next generation mobile processors introduced, primarily from Qualcomm, Nvidia, Apple, and Samsung, giving us a whole new catalog of chips, names, and quirks with which to become familiar.
Below is the important information you need to know about these chips, so you’re fully informed, along with the most important detail of all: The phones and tablets they’re currently powering, plus those they may be appearing in soon – to the best of our knowledge.
Updated 10-25-2013 by Andy Boxall: We’ve completely updated all the information in this article, which was first published back in March. New devices that use each processor were added, and we’ve put in Apple’s 64-bit A7 chip, removed the ST Ericsson chip, and added some new information about Broadcom and Samsung collaboration.
First: The big guys
Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 and 800
Qualcomm still dominates mobile processors (they’re the Intel of phones), and these two Snapdragon processors will likely be in many of the smartphones released during 2013. The quad-core Snapdragon 600 resides in both mid and high-end smartphones and tablets, can run at speeds of up to 1.9GHz and is equipped with an Adreno 320 graphics chip. Think of it like a turbo-boosted Snapdragon S4, which was found in the Galaxy S3 and most other phones that came out in late 2012, and you’ve got the idea.
The quad-core Snapdragon 800 never made its debut until the latter half of this year, but it was worth the wait. Its abilities include Ultra HD (4K) resolution video recording and streaming to Ultra HD external displays, cameras with up to 55 megapixels and a clock speed of 2.3GHz. It also has global 3G and 4G support, plus the latest Adreno 330 graphics chip. Qualcomm says it’s 75 percent faster than the fastest Snapdragon S4.
Snapdragon 600 seen in: While it’s seen as the lesser alternative to the Snapdragon 800, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 is still found in many of the top smartphones on sale. For example: The Samsung i9505 Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, plus the recently announced HTC One Max. Other devices with the processor include the ZTE Grand Memo, the LG Optimus G Pro, and the LG G Pad 8.3 tablet.
Snapdragon 800 seen in: The vast majority of high-end, big screen smartphones released after the summer use the Snapdragon 800, so naming them looks like every geek’s mobile wish list. Sony utilizes the processor in the Xperia Z1 and the Z1 Ultra, while Samsung has stuffed it (along with 3GB of RAM) inside the Galaxy Note 3. LG uses it in the LG G2, Nokia in the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 2520 tablet, and Asus slotted it into the updated Padfone Infinity 2.
Nvidia Tegra 4 and Tegra 4i
The Tegra 4 has been described as the world’s fastest mobile processor (by, um, Nvidia, so take it as you will) and modifies the super advanced ARM Cortex A15 cores to produce speeds of up to 1.9GHz. Like the Tegra 3, the Tegra 4 also has a companion core to take care of the easier tasks, resulting in less energy consumption and longer battery standby times. It’s capable of supporting Ultra HD (4K) video through the HDMI port, 4GB of RAM, and a screen resolution up to 3200 x 2000 pixels.
Nvidia’s second Tegra chip, the Tegra 4i, is based on the ARM Cortex A9 architecture, but still offers some stonking specs such as 2GB of RAM, 1080p resolution and a 2.3GHz maximum speed. It also has Nvidia’s new i500 4G LTE modem built-in, which is a first for the company, and is very slim and power efficient.
We’re excited about both Nvidia’s new processors, but it has only very recently they’ve begun appearing in hardware we can actually buy. ZTE was the first to come up with a smartphone powered by the Tegra 4, but it’s still only available in China. However, Nvidia’s chip has fared better inside tablets, with Microsoft adopting it for the refreshed Surface range. Naturally, Nvidia’s own Android-based Shield portable games machine also uses a Tegra 4.
As for the Tegra 4i, it’s still coming soon, and is expected to arrive in currently unknown hardware before the end of the year, which could be based on a Nvidia reference design phone.
Tegra 4 seen in: Six months ago, the Tegra 4 was nowhere to be seen. ZTE has since announced the Geek smartphone, making good on its promise to be the first to produce a Tegra 4 device, while Microsoft has used it inside the Surface 2 tablet. Elsewhere, the Tegra 4 is taking care of business in the Asus Transformer Pad TF701T, the Kobo Arc 10HD, and the forthcoming HP Slate 7 Extreme.
Tegra 4i coming soon in: Nvidia’s Phoenix reference phone, equipped with an 8mm chassis and a 1080p, 5-inch display, which is apparently available for manufacturers to purchase outright. The Phoenix could be joined by another reference phone, with a smaller 4.8-inch screen, an 8-megapixel camera, and 4G LTE.
Intel Atom Z2580 Clover Trail+
This is Intel’s follow-up to the Medfield chip seen in phones such as the Motorola Razr i and the ZTE Grand X IN. The Clover Trail+ adds another core to make this a dual-core processor and it can run at speeds up to 2.0GHz. It also has enhanced PowerVR graphics, tripling the 3D ability of the Medfield. What it doesn’t have, is much support from manufacturers, as you’ll see. Intel inside? No, not really.
Intel’s Z2580 seen in: The Lenovo K900, a 5.5-inch, 1080p smartphone/tablet hybrid was announced at CES 2013, and released during the summer. However, the device has yet to make its way out of China. Following a deal with ZTE, the Chinese firm put the Z2580 into the ZTE Geek, but then swapped it out for the Nvidia Tegra 4 several months later. To make up, ZTE subsequently announced the Grand X2 in May.
Samsung Exynos 5 Octa (eight core)
You may be familiar with the Exynos 4 Quad (or maybe not). It’s the processor driving many of Samsung’s high-end phones and tablets outside the U.S., including the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Note 8.0. We were expecting its eight-core sister chip, the Exynos 5 Octa, to make more of a splash this year, but sadly it hasn’t happened.
The eight-core Exynos 5 Octa powers the i9500 version of the Galaxy S4 and the N9500 Galaxy Note 3, versions which are sold only in a few markets around the world. Initially believed to be an issue related to 4G LTE connectivity, it’s now thought production volumes are to blame for its lack of international availability.
While it’s called an eight-core chip, the Exynos 5 Octa is effectively two quad-core chips nailed together using ARM’s Big Little concept. Without getting too technical, here’s how this works: When demand on the processor is low, everything is handled by the “Little” 1.2GHz quad-core chip, but when things get more stressful, a “Big” 1.8GHz quad-core chip (based on the same ARM Cortex A15 architecture as the Tegra 4) takes over. The benefits are similar to the Tegra 3’s little companion core, as it results in lower energy consumption when the phone is performing basic tasks.
At first, the Exynos 5 Octa could only use four cores at a time, but an updated version uses a new technique to enable all eight to work together.
Exynos 5 Octa seen in: The i9500 Samsung Galaxy S4, and the N9500 Galaxy Note 3.
Introduced with the Apple iPhone 5S, the A7 is the world’s first 64-bit processor designed for mobile use. Twice as fast as the A6 chip, the new iOS 7 operating system was designed to make the most of its unique architecture, and thanks to twice the graphics performance over its predecessor, gaming has become even better too. The 1.3GHz dual-core processor is produced by Samsung to Apple’s design.
Its introduction caused a stir, with some hailing it as a new beginning, while others passed it off as a marketing gimmick. Only time will tell who is right, but Samsung has already confirmed it’s working on its own 64-bit chip, too.
A7 seen in: The iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad Mini 2.
Apple isn’t the only company that can surprise us with an innovative new chipset. Motorola (a Google company) may have changed the industry with its X8 chipset. The X8 allows the Moto X to do a lot of cool things, like receive voice commands when its asleep and always detect motion. This is because it’s split up into eight different cores. There are four graphics processor cores, 2 processors to run apps, and 2 low-power cores, one for detecting motion and one for processing speech. The X8 does have a Snapdragon S4 Pro inside of it.
X8 as seen in: The Moto X, the Droid Ultra, the Droid Maxx, and the Droid Mini.
On the next page: The underdog processors looking to make a splash this year.
The plucky underdogs
On the last page, we covered the big players, including Nvidia’s Tegra 4, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800, and Intel. Those are the names we’ll be seeing attached to the majority of top-end, exciting phones and tablets released over the coming year. But they don’t have the market all to themselves. Other incoming devices may use alternative power sources. Here’s some of the lesser known chips you may come across this year.
Here’s a name you may not recognize, but you’ll know its parent company. HiSilicon produces Huawei’s in-house processors such as the quad-core K3V2 processor (based on the ARM Cortex A9) used in the Ascend Mate and the Ascend P6. Its successor was expected to be another quad-core chip, but it’s now being suggested the K3V3 will have eight-cores, and be based on the same Big Little technology used in Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa. Huawei CEO Richard Yu confirmed the company’s eight-core plans at CES, but never said it would be the K3V3 chip. When, and if, the K3V3 does arrive – in either eight-core or four-core form – it’s rumored to be inside the Huawei Ascend P7, the sequel to its super-slim Ascend P6.
MediaTek isn’t very well known in the U.S. or Europe, but its cheap, low-power MT6589 quad-core processor can be found in various smartphones sold in China. Following this success, it has moved onto developing an eight-core processor, named the MT6592. Again based on ARM’s Big Little technology, it’ll also be able to run all eight cores at the same time. A recent rumor has linked the MT6592 with a Sony smartphone/tablet hybrid codename Tianchi, possibly due for release in November.
Intel Atom Z2420 Lexington
Announced at CES 2013, the Z2420 Lexington is destined for modestly specced hardware. The chip has already been adopted by Acer, who popped it inside the Liquid C1, an Android 4.0 phone with a 4.3-inch screen and an 8-megapixel camera. Since then, it has shown up in the Asus Fonepad tablet.
Unlike their more powerful sister chips, the Snapdragon 600 and 800, the Snapdragon 200 and 400 live in more basic devices. The dual-core Snapdragon 400 can run at 1.7GHz, has 4G connectivity, and an Adreno 305 graphics chip, while the Snapdragon 200 can reach 1.4GHz and has a basic Adreno 203 GPU (graphics processor).
Since their announcement, the Snapdragon 200 has been used in low-end phones such as the HTC Desire 500 and the Samsung Galaxy Win, while the Snapdragon 400 powers the HTC Desire 601 and the HTC First.
After Broadcom licensed ARM’s processor architecture, it made sense for the company to make moves into the smartphone world, although it initially confirmed plans to only build a series of processors destined for set-top boxes and similar products. Sure enough, Samsung signed up with Broadcom to use the BCM21664 dual-core, 1GHz chip inside its high-selling Galaxy Ace 3, having given the firm a try with the Galaxy S2 Plus.
Get ready for 2014, when 64-bit chips will take on eight-core chips
As you can probably see from the information above, there are two technologies which are sure to headline more than a few new smartphones in 2014 and beyond: Eight-cores and 64-bit. Samsung has already talked about producing a 64-bit chip to rival Apple’s A7, and it’s rumored to first appear in next year’s Galaxy flagship phone, tentatively known as the Galaxy S5. As for eight-core processors, they’re on the rise, with Huawei and MediaTek both working on examples, and once production stabilizes, we should see them in more hardware released worldwide too.
It’s easy to get caught up in all this talk about bits and cores, but for now, don’t be disheartened that your phone “only” has quad-cores, as they provide more than enough power for our phones, and if we’re honest, so do the best top-end dual-core chips.
Article first published 03-17-2013.