- By Ryan Whitwam on August 26, 2011 at 9:00 am
There is a reason that so many mobile devices run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon system-on-a-chip (SoC). Qualcomm is one of the largest designers of mobile ARM chips in the world, but it’s not just the scale that has made Qualcomm into a mobile powerhouse. The design and features of the Snapdragon SoC have proven to be a hit with users and device makers alike.
This esoteric bit of silicon might seem inconsequential, but it has a huge impact on the design and capabilities of a phone or tablet. Qualcomm has long prided itself on going its own way, and that’s evident in the design of the Snapdragon line of parts. Whereas chip designers like Samsung and Texas Instruments (TI) license the architecture for ARM’s Cortex cores, Qualcomm designed their own ARM-compatible cores.
In current generation SoCs, Qualcomm uses the Scorpion core instead of Cortex-A8. They license the ARM instruction set, so the chips remain compatible at the user level, but running the enhanced Scorpion core means more bang-for-the-buck when actually using a phone.
When it comes to that slab of glass and plastic that lives in pockets, it needs to be slim and well-designed. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon makes that easier from the perspective of the OEM. All SoCs integrate several system components into one package, but Qualcomm has taken this to the logical extreme. All generations of Snapdragon SoC have the processor, GPU, GPS, and most importantly, the GSM/CDMA cellular modem all in one package. This saves space and power in the phone. Designing a svelte, attractive device becomes easier when more components are in one piece of silicon. Similarly, the supply chain is simplified for the OEM if they do not need to source parts for as many individual components.
As Qualcomm moves forward, they aren’t done innovating. The new dual-core Snapdragons are beginning to make their way onto the market in devices like the HTC Sensation and Evo 3D. Unlike competing the dual-core chips from Nvidia and TI, the Snapdragon with its custom Scorpion cores is capable of asymmetric use. This essentially means the cores can be clocked independently and have different power draws. Users will see better power management from these chips, even in a dual-core world.
Since Qualcomm’s dual-core SoCs are still using Scorpion, they are reaching the limits of the architecture. Scorpion was designed to emulate last year’s ARM Cortex-A8. Chips like the Nvidia Tegra 2 and Samsung Exynos license Cortex-A9, which is a generation newer.
The big change is set to come in the fourth generation Snapdragons with the introduction of the Krait core. Krait is expected to be paired with a new generation of Adreno mobile graphics and use a much more advanced manufacturing process. The upshot for users being that Qualcomm’s new chips are likely going to be blisteringly fast. According to Qualcomm, the power consumption of these faster SoCs will be even better than Scorpion-based units. That’s a big deal for users that need an all-day device.
The new dual and quad-core Snapdragons running Krait cores are expected to begin showing up late in 2011, and into 2012. Bringing together these new features with the innovative SoC design seen in recent years, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips could be headed for continued dominance in mobile devices.