Chips on the Table

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chips on the table

CPU, GPU, SoC?

Dual, Quad, Hexa, Octa?!

Snapdragon, Tegra, Exynos, Kirin, Helio, Bionic?!?!

There’s a lot that goes into a smartphone. Thousands of components, all with complicated names, features and parameters. All these parts have a separate individual function, which more often than not is completely unrelated to the other. Housed inside all of a smartphone’s geekspeak mumbo-jumbo is the reign of its horsepower, the one that brings all of the discrete elements together as one: the Chipset.

Let’s take a peek under the hood.

The Royal System of Chips

The Royal System of Chips

Any conversation of smartphone performance begins with the mention of its SoC which stands for System on Chip. The SoC is where the CPU (Central Processing Unit), GPU (Graphics  Processing Unit), Modem and a few other components are housed.

By keeping all of the components consolidated into a tiny package, manufacturers can make their devices smaller, faster and more battery efficient. This also makes the devices cheaper to build and reduces costs when assembling. The size of processors has become a parameter for their advancement, with companies like IBM pouring hundreds of millions to produce a 5-nanometre chip that crams 30 million transistor units inside of it.

The Mind Processor: CPU

The CPU is the mind of your phone. Usually classed by speed (expressed in GigaHertz or GHz), the processor essentially executes what you want your smartphone to do. Smartphones today are portable computers that happen to have telephone capabilities built in. Underneath that shiny touchscreen display is a full-fledged computer, responsible for telling your apps how to function, your GPS how to get you home and you to call on the telephone. The processor is the mastermind of the whole operation.

What’s core? It’s an element that reads and executes instructions. Devices began with a single-core processor, but bigger asks led to dual-core devices. In no time, there were quad-core processors ( that is, four cores), and now there are hex (six) and octa-core (eight) smartphones and tablets.

The more the merrier? The more cores, the faster they the phone grants your wish. That means having multiple cores leaves your usage experience snappy: Apps load quick. Animations and videos play with a stutter. You PUBg sessions don’t get bogged down. There are exceptions, but as a generalization, more cores mean more power. These complementary units work together to share the load and keep the device energy efficient.

The Eye Processor: GPU

Bundled with the CPU is a graphics card. The GPU is responsible for handling the visual output of your device. The GPU is essentially used where extensive rendering is involved, to make all your 3D games and VR videos good to look at.

Lower-end chipsets don’t often come with dedicated GPUs: they’re hidden inside the CPU itself. Higher end processors often come with dedicated graphics processors, which as measured in floating point operations per seconds, also known as GFLOPS.

All Processors aren’t Created Equal

processor aren't created equal

Just because two smartphones both have the same GHz processors, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same kind of performance from both. This is because different chipset makers have varying approaches to designing their processors or SoC. There are only a few major players in the mobile processing world, like Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Samsung, but they all have one thing in common: ARM. ARM is a company that provides the architecture for mobile processors. Several companies use it as the basis for developing their SoC units.

Some companies may license ARM’s own design language and use it as is, while others only license the set and create their own CPU based on the guidelines from ARM, hence the variations.

Qualcomm is the world’s largest chip maker with its widely-used Snapdragon/Adreno Series. The company has broken up its CPUs into categories of 200, 400, 600 and 800 for entry-level to flagship smartphones respectively. The Adreno GPUs follow similar schemes, with the higher model number being better.

MediaTek is the world’s second-largest chip manufacturer. Their stronghold can be found in the Asian markets that favor budget smartphones. Their flagship series is the Helio X range, followed by Helio P, and the Helio M. The rest of their line-up is scattered and has less than remarkable naming schemes.

Nvidia’s Tegra series has also been a major player in smartphones but has faded into the world of computer processors instead over the last few years.

There are several other brands that make smartphone processors: Huawei with its Kirin and giants like Samsung and Apple with Exynos range and Ax series with different suffixes like Bionic. With all of these processors, as a rule of thumb, the higher number denotes better performance.

These processors are often used interchangeably when the performance is comparable to avoid legal and geographical issues. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S8 uses the Snapdragon 835 in the US and its own Exynos 8895 internationally.

What phone should you buy?

There are dozens of variables—the processor is only one part of your device which has RAM, antennas for WiFi, the whole software experience, cameras and much more. All elements come together as a unit and all need to be considered when you buy a smartphone or tablet.

Bottom line, when shopping for a smartphone or tablet, the processor specs are useful to get a sense of what the device is capable of. If you’re looking for lightning fast responses, go jam with a multi-core processor and the bells and whistles. But don’t let the chipset be the only deciding factor.