Snapdragon vs. Hummingbird vs. OMAP - the mobile CPU war beyond 1GHz

Snapdragon vs. Hummingbird vs. OMAP - the mobile CPU war beyond 1GHz
We recently had to toss out an old PC – a huge beige box with a 300MHz CPU (overclocked from 266), that was handmade ten years ago for major bucks. Then someone said “geez, my phone now is three times faster than this”. It made us think about the advances in chip miniaturization and raw speeds that have been happening lately. Smartphones pose the most daunting task – to combine performance with the lowest power consumption possible, and thus play a huge role in the mobile processing war.

1GHz processors on high-end handsets are all the rage now, but 1.5GHz puppies with more than one core have finished sampling and are being shipped to manufacturers. These are already desktop clock speeds, but how much is enough? Will the mobile CPU war fall victim of the same delusion the desktop one had – that faster is better? Or will it try to find the sweet spot between raw power and energy consumption as their laptop counterparts did?

We think the answer will be known sooner rather than later as we've already attained the magic 1GHz number, and the upcoming CPUs promise even higher clock speeds with the same power consumption. Hummingbirds and Snapdragons - these 1GHz animals are offering all-in-one solutions to cell phone manufacturers. Called system-on-a-chip (SoC), they take care of both the system tasks and the hardware video acceleration, often along with all baseband and RF connectivity, the GPS module and the multimedia processing. They are designed to fulfill the longest lasting dream of any electronics user – to carry one device that does it all decently.

Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple and Texas Instruments are currently the major SoC players, and they have something in common – all of their chipsets are based on the ARM architecture. ARM Holdings owns the intellectual property rights on processor architecture; they develop the next generation’s schematics, and then sell them to chip manufacturers to come up with their own custom SoC solutions. The current 1GHz mobile CPUs are based on ARM's Cortex-A8 generation, but Cortex-A9 is just around the corner, and it is exciting.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon family is probably the household name when it comes to 1GHz mobile CPUs. It's been around for more than a year now, shining initially in the Toshiba TG01, then powering such prominent phones as the HTC HD2, the Nexus One and the HTC EVO 4G. The Snapdragon's Scorpion core takes care to add better multimedia instructions and power management to the Cortex-A8 core of ARM Holdings.

The prevailing concern for the company was to make a mobile SoC that can go all day on a single charge, thus Snapdragon was designed with low power consumption in mind. For the graphics tasks, Qualcomm relies on the AMD Z430 processor after purchasing Imageon - the mobile graphics department of AMD, then rebadged their GPUs (originally developed by ATI) under the Adreno moniker. This first generation of Snapdragon is produced with the older 65nm technology, which fits less transistors on the same space than the new, upcoming iteration of these chips, manufactured with the 45nm process.

The 45nm production method fits more transistors on the same space, or achieves the same performance from smaller chips, which leads to a better battery life, more functions, and extremely thin and light devices for the power they house. We won't be boring you much with electronics lingo, but this new 45nm version of Snapdragon is already in manufacturers’ hands, and speeds things up to 1.3GHz with two thirds of the power consumption.

The third generation of the ubiquitous Snapdragon is the most interesting one, of course. The MSM8260 and MSM8660 chipsets for high-end smartphones will be dual-core, with each core running at up to 1.2 GHz. Even faster version supporting larger screen resolutions is QSD8672 – two cores humming at the sweet 1.5GHz, which will most likely go into tablets, or the likes of the Dell Streak. Qualcomm has the advantage of having finished the sampling of its next generation SoCs, and HTC is rumored to be the chief beneficiary, so they might be first to deliver a smartphone with two processor cores.

What do these dual Scorpion core Snapdragon chips promise for us spoiled brats waiting on the shiny new toy? Full HD 1080p video recording and decoding plus dedicated low-power audio engine for multichannel home-theater surround sound, for starters. Add to that a GPU subsystem based on the new Adreno 220, and capable of up to 80mln triangles per second for enhanced 3D gaming plus an integrated low-power GPS. All these “low-power” adjectives are not coincidental - the third generation is supposed to use 30% less energy than the single core Snapdragons, also because the work will be evenly distributed between cores.

A chief differentiation of Qualcomm for their Snapdragon architecture is to make it a truly all-in-one solution for the various tasks on a modern smartphone.  After spending more than a decade in CDMA devices, its baseband modem chips are now integrated in the Snapdragon SoC, saving manufacturers the effort to add third party silicon. The MSM8660 Snapdragon will even support both multi-mode HSPA+ and 1xEV-DO Rev -  a true world phone with dual-core prowess.

Samsung Hummingbird and Apple A4:

The next-gen Snapdragons above will be produced with the 45nm technology, but there are actually phones on the market with CPUs that utilize this technology right now. Enter Samsung’s Hummingbird chipset, a SoC which powers the company’s first bada OS phone – the Samsung Wave, and the Galaxy S with its US carrier versions.

The main added value of Samsung’s Hummingbird chipset, compared with the other current hardware platforms, though, is said to be in the graphics subsystem. It is built around a PowerVR SGX 540 core, and Samsung claims a theoretical processing of up to 90mln triangles per second. The 2D performance of the Hummingbird is better with an even larger margin – a billion pixels per second versus half a billion for the dual-core Snapdragon.

It is not entirely clear for us how the chipset manufacturers are reaching these speeds, but the end result is outstanding, and on par with what mobile gaming systems are achieving. The iPhone 3GS, however, has the previous version of the PowerVR chips, and still managed to run the most enticing 3D titles ever to appear on a small screen, so it is all up to game developers now to take advantage of the new raw speeds.

The 3GS successor, the iPhone 4, is having a custom designed chipset called A4, which is running the iPad as well. Samsung developed the Hummingbird platform based on intellectual property from Intrinsity, a processing solutions company that Apple bought last year for $121 mln to lock in the A4 exclusivity for its own mobile gadgets. Therefore, when dissected, both Hummingbird and A4 share a lot of commonalities, and we’d assume they are fairly similar in basic capabilities too.

As if to back up these suspicions, the Samsung Galaxy S with its US carrier versions, and the iPhone 4 occupy the top two places in the graphics GLBenchmark 1.1 test. The acquisition of the fast chip designers by Apple hasn't severed the ties with Samsung, as they are still contractually obliged to support the Hummingbird platform.



1. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

finally a well thought out and written article on PA. The only thing that constantly bugs me is the abreviation of million. mln? Can ya just use M like most people.. I constantly find myself sounding it out... lol. cant wait for the next gen. If the next hummingbird has a 30% jump in battery life, that should put it inline with the A4/hummingbird, not past it. My vibrant gets almost a full day with me rarely putting the thing down. How many snapdragon handsets can do that? lol

2. ilia1986 unregistered

Indeed - as I said over and over again - and continue to say once more - smartphones are the future. In several years almost every phone will be a smartphone. And the difference between the phone and the PC - aside from the screen size - will be minuscule

4. Trevsx1000

Posts: 33; Member since: Dec 08, 2009

I agree with it all except for the screen size, especially with the 4.3 inch Droid X being about 1/3rd the size of my netbook screen. Albeit a netbook and PC are different I think smartphones will soon turn into 'Computer-Phones' with more user-friendly software for their slightly smaller size. PC's getting shrunk and smartphones going no more than 5ish inches. Just my .02

6. ilia1986 unregistered

Yes well, you still will want to have that 50" screen in your flat to view stuff from your couch. But indeed - smartphones are the future. And everyone claiming that just because most people still use simple phones today and thus it is better to focus on them - needs to understand the above this.

3. Trevsx1000

Posts: 33; Member since: Dec 08, 2009

Well written, we need more articles like this!

5. breal525

Posts: 27; Member since: May 24, 2010

I found this to be very informative.

7. mc delta theta

Posts: 1; Member since: Jul 31, 2010

mmmmm.. what a beautiful article. This site would be top notch if they are not so biased towards apple's Ios in their phone reviews.Especially if it is a close contender. Well done Phone Arena. (I hope you are reading this !!)

8. Electrofreak

Posts: 1; Member since: Jul 31, 2010

It's always cool to see my articles listed as sources, thanks! :) I will say this, my "Ruminations" post (your "more" source link) missed the mark on a few things (essentially, I was wrong about why the 45 nm OMAP 3630 in the Droid X was performing so well in Quadrant) but I explain my mistakes and some new findings based upon an article on AndroidAndMe here: In addition, I encourage anyone who is interested to check out's review of the Droid X's SoC, it's VERY well informed: (Page 4 cuts to the meat about the hardware) Also, an older article about the Nexus One covers Snapdragon pretty well: (Again, this cuts to the important stuff on page 8) And I'm looking forward to their review of the Galaxy S phones and the Hummingbird SoC. A lot of new information has come out since I wrote my Hummingbird vs Snapdragon article in April and I'm sure they'll be able to uncover even more secrets that I couldn't tease out of technical whitepapers.

9. gridlock

Posts: 31; Member since: Jun 10, 2010

Yes, can't wait for a Cortex A9 handset with TI's new chips to be benchmarked against the 3rd gen Snapdragons!

10. rtimi26

Posts: 42; Member since: Mar 16, 2009

Did anyone notice that galaxy s is the best on the benchmark on any phone in the world, since the htc glacier isn't out yet. Samsung has really done a good job and can't wait for see what froyo would do.

11. jskrenes

Posts: 209; Member since: Dec 11, 2008

I also remember a year ago the folks at MIT were working on technology that would offer a 3-10x increase in battery life. I think people are pretty habituated to charging their phones once a day or every other day, so combining these two things we'll see larger screens, smaller or more unique form factors, and even more processor-intense features.

12. Mike w. unregistered

Really good article. Had alot well put together information. Smartphones are the future, and like someone said above the only difference in a few years between a PC and smartphone will be the screen size.

13. Lanced unregistered

Good general article. However, comparing battery hour between SoC is at best misleading. A poorly written driver can eat up all the battery no matter how good the SoC is at managing its power consumption. That is one of the reasons Apple does not support true multi-tasking + every application has to go through their inspection. Additionally, "Significantly improved battery life over the current generation" is not a guaranteed. At the transistor level, leakage power become dominant and is not easy to control. On top of that, newer generation of SoC has much more transistor than the older one. Take A9 for example, it has more transistors that the A8. Beside, compiling an A9 at 1.5GHz would nearly double the gate count compare to the same core at 1GHz. As software is not yet consolidated (various OS, graphic standards etc), SoC is still being built with many extra functions to cover all customers. As such, software role in manage these unused resource is critical in managing power consumption. Phone with the best software will win, and I think Apple proved that today.

14. BlackSirius16

Posts: 84; Member since: May 21, 2010

Apple proved that their software wont win? because that's all I say in the iPhone 4 plus i get better battery life out of my droid than my sister gets out of her iPhone 4 and im a power user

15. chmod421 unregistered

nice article like to see more of it i think in 5 years every comlicated needs will be doing by smartphones payments on shops and online shops asweel bank account attcahed to the simcards cash adwance from ATM's lot and lot mores even i can not emagine thanks for this well informative article

16. NYCkid unregistered

As a young man growing up in the Bronx, an impoverished place full of youth that rather have the most expensive sneakers and phone than a good meal or diapers for the baby, am inclined to say that yes, a phone that can eliminate high tech peripherals is awsome. But, these companies should be working on cutting cost for the consumer, not lining their pockets with the blood of the poor. There are probably more smartphones in low class urban areas than in the whole world. This article is supurb in all its facts and actually giving people the information to make an educated decision. Yet I will add that as a capitalist society, these huge companies should invest more into educating the consumer on money mannagement. The more expensive gadgets are purchased the higher the crime rate goes. Food for Thought.

19. mb1616 unregistered

Very informative article, thanks!

20. Knowname unregistered

and what of the DS, 3DS and PSP?

21. ian unregistered

Very nice article - best I've seen on the subject - thank you The writing has been on the wall for some time - but this article provides the outline for play out over the next 12-18 months as one poster stated - all the computing power needed by most people will be available in 'phones' with an hdmi (wireless?) to a bigger display (hdtv, monitor, pico projector, etc) - input can vary between a folding bt keyboard, kinect, etc desktop/laptop is not dead - I still need 3d CAD (e.g Solidworks) or eagle for pcb's, etc - but 'phone'w/ exte4nal display will be fine for majority of users in coming years

22. AanyaSharma

Posts: 1; Member since: Jan 03, 2012

I was researching about mobile phone processors and your article was of great help. There's not much info about mobile CPUs available on Internet, especially for a layman like me. Thank you so much.. Keep posting interesting stuff. There's one more detailed article about mobile CPUs and I would like to share the link -

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit for samples and additional information.