The Xiaomi Mi 11 is the first phone to feature the latest application processor; it's the vehicle that put the Snapdragon 888 into the wild...
The big news out of Qualcomm this week was the announcement that Steve Mollenkopf will be retiring at the end of June. He will be replaced by current president, Cristiano Amon. But that announcement came on the heels of Qualcomm’s new flagship processor hitting the streets. The Xiaomi Mi 11 is the first phone on the market to feature the latest application processor; it’s the vehicle that put the Snapdragon 888 into the wild.
The features announced at the Snapdragon Tech Summit generated a lot of interest, and Jim McGregor covered this in great detail. Expect additional details to start to filter through as physical analysis of the chip is sure to begin soon.
Maybe it was sandbagging a bit, but it did not take long for the first anticipated news to come to light from my 2021 Watch List. Since New Year’s resolutions are fresh, let’s take a closer look.
Android Authority posted some comparisons of the Apple A13 cores to three generations of Arm Cortex cores from A77 up to the latest Cortex-X1. Robert Triggs’s article went into more detailed comparisons as an issue arose with news that the entry-level iPhone SE performance exceeded flagship Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20.
According to Triggs at Android Authority, “Next-gen Android SoCs that use the Cortex-X1 will certainly see a healthy boost to single-core CPU performance, although they’re unlikely to fly past their iPhone rivals.” But there is more to the story. The most damning comparisons I have seen show Apple running away with it on single core benchmarks. However, iPhone competitors are at least comparable in multi-core performance. The Cortex-X1 will make it more difficult for Apple mavens to highlight one big win and obfuscate situations where the iPhone could be outperformed.
The single core lead for Apple was also true on the new personal computer processor, the M1. The Cortex-X1 is bigger and more powerful and may eliminate this advantage for Apple. It makes sense to me that Qualcomm would target higher single core performance to make sure 2021 model phones do not lose out to the iPhone 12 in single core benchmarks. I’m sure it will make Android phone marketing departments a lot happier.
The Cortex-X1 is a departure for Arm. The A-series cores intended for mobile applications are a balance of performance, power, and area (PPA) considerations of the competing requirements of mobile processors. The X1 takes a turn toward pure performance and exceeds the A78 by about 22%. Perhaps more significant as these types of applications continue to emerge, the X1 doubles the machine learning capability of the A78 core.
The Snapdragon 888 includes the now standard big-little arrangement of a high-performance compute cluster as well as a smaller energy efficient cluster of four cores. Earlier designs clocked one of the of four HP cores higher than the rest to create a nexus of faster computational ability. This is sometimes referred to as 1+3+4 SoC architecture. The new Qualcomm processor uses a different core design for the higher performing HP core. That’s where the Arm Cortex-X1 comes in. For the Snapdragon 888, the 1+3+4 breaks down as:
The Cortex-X1 was designed to be a scalable solution for applications needing to push the performance end of PPA a little harder.
Mediatek and Samsung
Samsung is poised to launch its iteration of one type of 1+3+4 processor approach that has more in common with the Snapdragon 865 than the 888. Rather than adding a separate high performance design like the Cortex-X1, the Exynos 1080 uses the Cortex-A78 for all four high performance cores.
Samsung’s approach is to use the same design for each core in the high-performance cluster but clock one of them higher. Earlier Snapdragon processors were also designed this way.
Qualcomm likely got first dibs on the new Cortex-X1 core, but it is not perfectly clear who else will have access and when. This is wrapped up in Arm’s Cortex-X Custom Program.
Mediatek’s latest application processors continue with Cortex-A77 cores. The Dimensity 1000C uses the conventional four big plus four little core architecture:
The Mediatek Dimensity 1000C includes an additional cluster of four “heterogeneous” cores. This seems like a good time to procrastinate. The Mediatek APU cores will have to wait.
The emergence of the latest CPU core from Arm is a major milestone, but the Snapdragon 888 has some other goodies.
The first 5G enabled Snapdragon 865 required an external baseband chip, the X55. Apple also used this baseband processor in their first 5G handset, the iPhone 12 (and variants). Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip will include the baseband functionality. Again, more details on that implementation are expected once reverse engineering companies ramp up analysis of the Xiaomi Mi 11.
The rest of the Snapdragon 888 platform (including other members of the chipset beyond the application processor) offers additional new features.
Wi-Fi 6E or “extended” is included. Wi-Fi 6 is the latest standard and represents a big step forward to improve wireless connectivity. That’s an even bigger deal in the current work and learn from home reality. Wi-Fi 6E is quite interesting as the push into 6GHz offers some virgin spectrum and better connection speeds as it avoids the crowded unlicensed spectrum of conventional Wi-Fi below it. Expect more news from the Wi-Fi Alliance about Wi-Fi 6E this week.
There could me more to the “E” than meets the eye.