Analysis, Hardware, Mobile Computing

Qualcomm Bets Big On Octa-Core With New Snapdragon SoCs

After extolling the virtues of “faster cores over more cores” for years, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) has ceded to market demands by launching four new Snapdragon SoCs that will be aimed at entry-level and mid-tier segments, with three offering eight-core CPUs and one with a hexa-core processor. With MediaTek steadily gaining momentum and Samsung stepping up its efforts in this segment, Qualcomm is facing more competition in this segment than ever before.

The new announcements include two new SoCs in the Snapdragon 400 line, the Snapdragon 415 and the Snapdragon 425, and two additions to the Snapdragon 6xx line in the form of the Snapdragon 618 and the Snapdragon 620. The latter two SoCs are the first to include ARM’s (NASDAQ:ARMH) latest Cortex A72 CPU, which is claimed to offer double the performance of the now-standard Cortex A57.

The new entry-level Snapdragons

Let’s take a detailed look at the new SoCs on offer. The Snapdragon 415 and Snapdragon 425 launched as successors to the Snapdragon 410, and as such feature the same core, Cortex A53, although the number of cores has doubled from four to eight. Core clock has also largely remained the same at 1.4GHz, with four cores in the Snapdragon 425 clocked slightly higher at 1.7 GHz. Memory clock has increased from 533MHz on the Snapdragon 410 to 667MHz on the Snapdragon 415 and 993 MHz on the Snapdragon 425, with LPDDR3 as standard on both SoCs.

The GPU side of things sees the introduction of Adreno 405 in this series, with the GPU itself unchanged from the one available in the 615. That means we’re looking at a clock of 550 MHz and a GFLOPS count of 59.1. In terms of connectivity, the Snapdragon 415 features Qualcomm’s rebadged XLTE 4 series modem, which delivers LTE Category 4 connectivity. What this essentially translates to is that if you’re on a network that can provide the bandwidth, you can access data at 150 Mbit/sec from your device.

The Snapdragon 415 also features a 13MP ISP and a H.264 codec  as well as HEVC decode. The Snapdragon 425 also comes with the same hardware decoder and codecs, but also has a dual-ISP feature that allows handset vendors to use the SoC in a device to drive two 21MP cameras. LTE connectivity has also been enhanced in the Snapdragon 425, with Qualcomm offering what it calls the X8 LTE modem. The modem delivers LTE Category 7 connectivity with a maximum bandwidth of 300 Mbit/sec, achieved through carrier aggregation.

High-end comes to the mid-tier

With the introduction of the Snapdragon 618 and the Snapdragon 620, Qualcomm has enabled several features that have thus far been reserved for the high-end chips to the mid-range segment. First among those is the ability to drive 4K resolutions, with both the Snapdragon 618 and Snapdragon 620 coming with hardware encoders and decoders that can handle a resolution of 3840 x 2160, which is a feature taken from the Snapdragon  810. Also included is the X8 LTE modem that delivers LTE Category 7 connectivity and a bandwidth of 300 Mbit/sec, and dual-ISPs that can facilitate two 21MP camera sensors.

While the Snapdragon 415 and Snapdragon 425 featured single-channel LPDDR3 memory, the Snapdragon 618 and Snapdragon 620 come with dual-channel lanes clocked at 933 MHz, resulting in a bandwidth of 14.9GB/s, or roughly double that of the Snapdragon 425.

A major highlight with the Snapdragon 6xx SoCs is the inclusion of the Cortex A72 CPU. The Snapdragon 618 is a hexa-core offering with four Cortex A53 cores clocked at 1.2 GHz and two Cortex A72 cores at 1.8 GHz, with the Snapdragon 620 coming with the same clock speeds but offering two more Cortex A72 cores, making it an octa-core offering with four Cortex A53 cores and four Cortex A72 cores. The GPU that is in use has not been detailed as yet, with Qualcomm only mentioning that the new chips feature a next-generation Adreno.

As for availability, Qualcomm has announced that the Snapdragon 415 will be making its way to consumer devices in the first half of this year, with the other three SoCs set to launch sometime in the latter half. With no mention of an upgrade to the Snapdragon 2xx series, it is safe to assume the Snapdragon 415 will be the entry-level offering from Qualcomm this year.

More competition

TSMC’s delays with the 16nm FinFET process have led to Qualcomm sticking with the 20nm process for this year, and possibly into 2016 as well. With Samsung (KRX:005935) shifting to 14nm with its latest Exynos 7 SoC — which in early benchmarks was shown to outdo the Snapdragon 810 considerably — Qualcomm is now at a disadvantage. Also, the vendor has not yet mentioned as to when ARM v8-based Krait cores will be available. Traditionally, the latest iteration of Krait cores are seen in the high-end segment, and in that regard, Qualcomm has been very quiet thus far, with no mention as to when we’ll see the next flagship chip. With the Cortex A72 being featured in the mid-tier segment, it is likely the next-generation Snapdragon 8xx will feature a custom CPU that is more powerful than what is on offer with the Cortex A72 so as to better differentiate the high-end offering.

In the mobile space, Qualcomm now has a lot of competitors. MediaTek (TPE:2454) has gained a lot of ground in markets like China and India with affordable entry-level solutions that offer LTE connectivity and eight-core CPUs, and the Snapdragon 415 is essentially Qualcomm’s answer in that segment. By offering features that were limited to the high-end segment in its mid-tier Snapdragon 6xx line, Qualcomm is highlighting its intent to consolidate its position in the mid-tier category.