Before we dwell on the history of smartphone processors, it is necessary to understand what a processor is and how mobile processor is different from the desktop processor. In a technical term, “Processor” is logic circuitry that responds to and processes the basic instructions that drive a computer or a smartphone. Brands market their products heavily basing on the version of the processor the device has.
Both the processors in the smartphone and the desktop has a similar function, but they generate heat. If the processor in the smartphone functions with the same speed of a desktop processor, the generated heat would melt the smartphone altogether. Therefore, the developers and designers of the devices limit, or throttle, the speed at which a mobile processor can run. Which means that if a processor is getting hot, it will limit its rate, which equates to slower performance. Because of this throttling, the processor on many phones will run slower than the advertised speed. In fact, the advertised speed of mobile processors is usually the maximum.
In the today’s age, smartphone and mobile processors are powerful because of its multi-cores. Initially, it was Single core, then came Dual core, we now have Quad core, Hexa-core, and even Octa-core. Most processors of this age are of 64 bit rather than 32 bit. The processing power of the present day processors has reached up to 3.0 -3.5 GHz. Alongside, the ability to include GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) inside mobile processors have enabled devices to churn out the best graphics picture, 3D capability, Virtual Reality capability and 4k recording. The improved processor technology also made today’s modern mobile devices more power efficient.
The History of Smartphone processors
The journey of processors started with its first smartphone IBM Simon aka IBM Simon personal communicator, which is a handheld PDA. It is the first touchscreen device which was developed to send and receive the faxes, emails and pager texts or cellular pages alongside making and receiving the phone calls. This device is equipped with the first smartphone processor “NEC V30HL” developed by NEC Corporation. It is a 16MHZ, 16bit, 8086 compatible CPU for mobile computing. In continuation, Nokia, Ericsson, Microsoft has started their journeys into the smartphone market. Nokia came up with its own PDA codenamed as “Nokia 9000 communicator” and it was the first product in Nokia communicator series. Nokia 9000 is fitted with Intel’s 24MHZ i386 CPU, which is a 32bit processor.
In the year 1999, Qualcomm entered the market with the launch of their own PDA, pdQ Smartphone. The pdQ smartphone, probably the first smartphone from Qualcomm is the first CDMA smartphone that runs on Palm OS. It was surprising to know that Qualcomm actually entered the smartphone market through its first CDMA device and not through the processors. We thought of researching the reasons that made Qualcomm be only processor producer of the world and what them to shift from a smartphone manufacturing company to only processor manufacturing company. We will also explain more about the history of Qualcomm and their wide range of processors in the next article.
After the launch of Motorola’s Dragon ball MC68328 processors with PDQ smartphone, the other variants of processors started releasing into the market through Ericsson Mobile Communications, Kyocera (the company which acquired Qualcomm then) and Handspring (the company that made the Palm OS for PDA’s). Later other companies started evolving which completely has taken the smartphone processors making the industry. The top leaders of smartphone processors makers are “Qualcomm”, “Intel”, “Nvidia”, “Mediatek”, “HiSilicon” and “Samsung”. We tried to list some of the popular smartphone processors and explained in brief below.
1.Qualcomm Snapdragon Mobile Processor
Qualcomm is an American multi-national semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company. They became popular with their launch of first CDMA smartphones from their smartphone making division. The smartphone division was later sold to “Kyocera”. Later in the year 2012, when Android smartphones started their journey in the smartphone industry, Qualcomm has started seeing the substantial growth in its revenue and profit through its “Snapdragon System-on-chip”. Qualcomm Snapdragon processor became so successful that, these processors remained as standard support chips for Android smartphones. Snapdragon’s popularity in processor market was when it released the first 1 GHz processor when the average speed of most smartphones was only 512 MHz.
Snapdragon system on chip products typically includes a graphics processing unit (GPU), a global positioning system (GPS) and a cellular modem integrated into a single package. There are 19 different Snapdragon processors under the 400, 600 and the 800 product families spanning from low to high-end respectively, as well as wi-fi and mobile charging products. The 400 family is entry-level, the 600 is mass-market or mid-range, and 800 family is for high-end or flagship phones.
Snapdragon processors are famous for handling multitasking and can handle heavy and intensive processing which is good for gaming. When it comes to heat, these processors produce less heat when compared to other processors. There are many variants in snapdragon series which ranges from S1, S2, S3, S4, S200, S400, S600, S800. Among the 800 series, 835 and 845 series is regarded as the high-end processor variant and 835 is recorded as flagship processor than 821. The 835 series from Qualcomm offer significant changes over 821. The chip size is 10 nanometer compared to 14 nanometers in S821. The new 835 processor is 27% faster in performance, consume 40% less power and reduced size by 30%. The new chips both 835 and 845 is also equipped with Quick Charge 4.0 which can give enough power to your battery to last a day with just 5-10 minute charging.
- Snapdragon 821 powered smartphones are Google Pixel, Google Pixel XL, Asus Zenfone, OnePlus 3T, Xiaomi Mi 5s, Xiaomi Mi 5s Plus, LeEco Le Pro3.
- Snapdragon 835 powered smartphones are Samsung Galaxy S8, OnePlus 4/5, Sony Xperia XZ, Pixel 2, HTC 11.
- Snapdragon 845 powered smartphones are Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, Sony Xperia XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Asus Zenfone 5Z, Sony Xperia XZ2 premium, LG G7 ThinQ, Xiaomi Mi 7.
2.Intel processors for Smartphones
Intel Corporation is an American multinational and technology company, and it is the second largest semiconductor cheap makers. Their smartphone processor variant it is codenamed as “Atom”, and it is the low power consumption and low-cost 32-bit and 64-bit chips manufactured for use in both smartphones and tablet PCs.
The Intel processors are designed based on the X86 architecture which is powerful than ARM from Qualcomm but consumes more power compared to ARM architecture. Latest versions of Intel processors did improve the power consumption aspect bringing it down to less than 5 watts which is ideal for all mobile devices. Though Atom processors, in the beginning, supported only Windows, it now supports all major mobile operating systems.
- Intel Atom processors are currently in Atom X5 and X7 series. These chips are 64 bit Quad core processors in 14-nanometer size with speeds up to 1.6 GHz that can be scaled up to 2.4 GHz.
- Intel Atom Processor powered Devices: Asus Zenfone 2 and Asus Zenfone 5
3.Nvidia Tegra Mobile Processor
Nvidia Corporation is also an American based company technology company which specialize in manufacturing high graphics cards for Gaming and mobile processors for mobile devices. The mobile processors developed by Nvidia is made under the brand name “Tegra.”
Tegra processor is built on 64 bit ARM architecture. The evolution of Tegra has started with Tegra 1 and has changed and updated to Tegra 3, Tegra 4, Tegra 4i, Tegra K1, Tegra X1, Tegra X2, and Xavier. Xavier is the most advanced version of Nvidia Tegra processor and it code-named after the comic character “Professor X”. This processor can be able to encode and decode 8K Ultra HD and this processor being used in Xavier AI Car Supercomputer and other self-driving cars.
The mobile processors from Nvidia that are being used in smartphone and tablet markets are mainly Tegra 4, Tegra 41 and the Tegra K1 which is regarded as high-end variant among Tegra series for smartphones.
List of Nvidia Tegra powered Devices: Asus Transformer PAD, HP Slatebook, Toshiba Excite, Xiaomi Mi3, XOLO Play Tegra Note is equipped with Tegra 4. The Tegra 4i has been used in Blackphone. The Tegra K1 is used by Nvidia Shield Tablet, Google Nexus 9, Xiaomi Mi Pad etc.
4.MediaTek smartphone processor
MediaTek Inc. is a Taiwanese semiconductor company that provides system-on-chip (SoC) products for wireless communications, HDTV, DVD, and Blu-ray. These processors were built on 64 bit ARM architecture. MediaTek is the first company to become the first system-on-chip (SoC) supplier to announce the development of an octa-core mobile device SoC capable of processing tasks with eight CPU cores. This company is famous for its innovation, and the recent MediaTek processor supports up to 3 GHz speed. MediaTek processors come in a variety of cores: Dual Core, Quad Core, Hexa Core and Deca Core. The recent processors from MediaTek are Helio P30, Helio X20, Helio X23, Helio X25, Helio X27, Helio P60, Helio X30.
MediaTek processors are most popular with the Chinese manufacturer. Xiaomi, Meizu, LeEco Le, Yu etc use them on Smartphones. Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Amazon Fire HD, QMobile are some of the manufacturers that use the processors in their tablets. The most popular devices like Redmi Note 4 has Helio X20 which is a deca-core processor. We will list out the popular devices running on MediaTek processors in the separate article.
These processors are mainly famous for their multiple cores. When it is matched with enough RAM, you can expect great multi-tasking and gaming experience. The GPU of the MediaTek, “The PowerVR” is better than most of the processors. When it comes to heat, these processors produce less heat than Qualcomm and other processors. Being the most budget processors available on the planet earth, most of the affordable devices run on MediaTek processors.
5.HiSilicon smartphone processor
HiSilicon is a Chinese company owned by Huawei and is specializing in semiconductor technology. Even this company creates chips based on ARM architecture. HiSilicon is the most significant domestic integrated circuit designer in China. Some of the processor variants released by this company are K3V1, K3V2, K3V2E, Kirin 620, Kirin 650, Kirin 910, Kirin 920, Kirin 930, Kirin 950, 960 and soon to be released Kirin 970. Kirin Processors power most of the Huawei smartphones.
Kirin 970 is built on 64-bit ARM architecture on 16 nm FinFET technology. The processor is Quad core capable of going up to 2.4GHz. This is also the first processor with Mali-G72 MP12 GPU, and this processor is equipped with Huawei P20 and P20 pro, The GPU is 180% faster than its predecessor. The processor made the significant improvement in making sure the battery last longer. There is also a lot of increase in high LTE download and upload speeds.
List of Kirin powered Devices: Huawei P10 and Huawei Mate 9 regarded as flagship devices are powered by Kirin 960. Some of the other devices with Kirin 950 are Honor 8, Huawei mate 8, Huawei MediaPad M3.
6.Samsung Exynos smartphone processor
Exynos is a series of ARM-based System-on-Chips (SoCs) developed and manufactured by Samsung Electronics. Some of its processors in the series are Exynos 9, Exynos 8, Exynos 7 Octa 9610, Exynos 7 Dual, Exynos 7420, Exynos 7 Octa 7580, Exynos 7 Octa 7870. The recent Samsung devices Samsung S9 and S9 plus equips Exynos 9 Series 9810 processor. It is paired with Mali-G72 MP18 GPU. The Samsung Note 8 comes with Exynos 9 Octa 8895 processor paired with Mali-G71 MP20 GPU.
After Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung decided to use both Exynos and Qualcomm models for their smartphone. Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge used both Exynos 8 Octa 8890 and Snapdragon 820. Usually, the type of processor used was decided by the model number and the place from where it is bought. Exynos 9 9810 processor is the latest from Exynos. The processor is equipped with Octa Core on 64-bit ARM architecture with Mali GPU. The processor is capable of running at 2.9 GHz speed with support for 3D gaming, 4K UHD resolution support.
By depending on the budget, performance and other requirements, every company decides the processor to be used in its smartphone. To cut down the production costs, companies like Samsung and Huawei uses there own in-house built processors. Whereas the Chinese smartphone companies mostly use the MediaTek Processors as their smartphone processor to decrease the cost of the product without comprising with the performance.