Enter the Snapdragon

These days pretty much any new smartphone that launches seems to have a Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC in it. While I've covered ARM's Cortex A8 before, I've never really talked about the Qualcomm Snapdragon before. Let's change that.

ARM is a different sort of microprocessor company than the ones we're used to covering. AMD and Intel design the instruction set, microarchitecture and ultimately do everything up to (and including for Intel) actually fabbing the chip. Owning the entire pipeline from ISA (instruction set architecture) all the way down to manufacturing is expensive. The graph below shows the rough costs of simply keeping up with fab technology every two years:

That's not really feasible for most companies. In fact, AMD recently got out of the fab business partly because of the incredible costs associated with it. Actually designing these architectures is a tough job. It'll take a large team of highly talented engineers multiple years to crank out a good design. Then you've got to test the chip and ultimately, you have to sell it.

Now it's hard to sell just a microprocessor, which is why both AMD and Intel offer a full platform solution. You can buy graphics, chipsets, SATA controllers, basically everything but a motherboard from these companies. It's difficult for a company to offer such a complete solution.

To sell the chips you need customers, you need to be able to deliver on their schedules and keep the whole machine running. Fabs, engineering, testing/validation, sales and marketing - it's an expensive business to run.

There's rarely room in any mature market for more than two competitors. And among those two competitors, there's never room for both to behave the same way. This is why AMD and Intel have wildly differing approaches to microprocessor architectures at the same process technology node. ARM can't follow in Intel's footsteps, so the alternative is to cut away the excess and remain focused.

Which is exactly what ARM does. ARM will sell you one of two things: a processor architecture, or a license to use its instruction set. The majority of customers take the former. If you're a processor licensee this is how it works.

At the core ARM creates an instruction set, just like Intel and AMD use x86, ARM has its own ISA. Next, ARM will actually create an entire processor designed around this instruction set. For example, the Cortex A8 is an ARM design based upon the ARMv7 ISA - just like the Core i7 is based upon Intel's x86 ISA.

This processor is tested, validated but not manufactured by ARM. Instead, ARM will give a licensee everything it needs to integrate this CPU core into its own design. Remember the part about needing a platform? It's usually up to the customer to grab a GPU, video decoder, image processor, etc... and put them all on a single chip with the ARM core they've just licensed. This way ARM doesn't have to deal with the complexities of lining up five different roadmaps and delivering a chip that its customers want. ARM provides the CPU, Imagination or some other company will provide the GPU IP and so on and so forth. Everyone gets a chip tailored to their needs.

Like I said, the majority of companies take this route. It's more cost effective because you don't have to do the CPU design yourself. You do lose a bit of a competitive edge, as your competitors can easily license the same cores you do. So you can differentiate based on how well you integrate all of this IP, what tradeoffs you make vis-a-vis power vs. performance vs cost, or marketing prowess, but not on base architecture. Take this route and you do run the risk of your chips performing the same as your competitors. Companies like TI (OMAP3, OMAP4) and Samsung (S5PC100) are ARM processor licensees. They license ARM11, ARM Cortex A8 and ARM Cortex A9 cores and integrate them into SoCs along with a GPU, video decoder and other IP that they source from various companies.


Samsung's S5PC100 is based on the Cortex A8 licensed from ARM

With as many players as there are in the SoC market, differentiation is key. For customers looking for more gain at the expense of increased risk, ARM offers a second option: an architecture license.

An architecture license means that you have the right to use the underlying ISA. AMD and Intel have broad cross licensing agreements in place that allow them both to produce x86 processors using instructions introduced by each maker. I don't have a license to the x86 ISA so you and I can't go out and sell our own x86 CPU tomorrow. Sorry.

Companies like Marvell are architecture licensees. They take an ARM instruction set (e.g. ARMv6, ARMv7) and use their own engineers to build a microprocessor around it.

This is a much more costly and risky approach. Building a CPU isn't easy, in fact the faster it is, the more complex and difficult the task becomes. Even companies that have tons of experience doing it screw up from time to time. It takes a lot of time, requires smart folks and you have to pay them good salaries. The upside is that with a bit of effort, you can outperform ARM's own designs. As with most things in life, the larger the risk, the larger the upside.

This is the route Qualcomm took.

Notifications: Better than Apple, Worse than Palm Inside Snapdragon is a Scorpion
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  • xtremevarun - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Reviews of Nexus One on other sites were not as comprehensive as on Anandtech. You guys really explored all the features. Apple needs to do a major refresh to iPhone. And I do see Android becoming a major, major OS for phones if it's not already. WinMo7 also looks great. Good that competition is hotting up against the iPhone. Reply
  • xxNIBxx - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    What about Samsung's Bada OS? Samsung Wave s8500 beats the living crap out of all those Snapdragon devices. Also Samsung will release i9000 Galaxy S, which has pretty much the same hardware as with s8500, except it runs Android. Hardware wise, these 2 are the best phones in the world. Snapdragon is old news.

    Iphone 4g, which will come out in 2 months, will most likely use apple's a4, which from what i hear, is probably identical to samsung's 1ghz cpu(same cpu/gpu)/
    Reply
  • sprockkets - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    If you receive a call over BT, does it

    1. Play the ringtone over the headset?
    2. Play it on the headset only or both the speaker and headset?
    3. Announce CID over the headset or even just the speaker?
    Reply
  • sushantsharma - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Looks OK! But usability should not go for a toss! Or I am missing it and it is there? Reply
  • Chloiber - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    "It's got a Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8650 SoC"

    Thought the Nexus One (and the HTC Desire) use a Snapdragon QSD8250?!
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    You are correct :) Fixed!

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Karl Brown - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    I will be receiving my Sony X10 on Tuesday.

    I hope the Sony will offer enough of the Nexus One's functionality to not make me regret not waiting longer for the Nexus One to become available in the UK.
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the very thorough review. The one area were the review lacks depth is audio and video playback and syncing. Differences in this area are striking imo:

    1.) If you don't use iTunes as an iPhone owner, you're pretty much SOL. The Nexus One I could sync with iTunes using DoubleTwist. But I don't like iTunes. I can just use Explorer or Windows Media Player or Songbird (1.7 beta) to sync instead. The latest Songbird builds do an amazing job (they even converts WAV and FLAC files on-the-fly).

    2.) Formats. I like that the the Nexus One supports OGG. FLAC support is coming (AFAIK it got added to trunk some time ago--idk if users will see it in FroYo or Gingerbread) Plus the Nexus One gives me everything the iPhone has (including M4A).

    3.) The media player. I hate to admit it as a current Nexus One and previous iPhone owner, but here the iPhone with its iPod app wins hands down. The UI of the iPod app is infinitely more intuitive, whereas things such as playlist generation are a pain on Android (everything takes far too many clicks).

    Because of 3.), I think the overall win in this category goes to the iPhone.
    Reply
  • bstewart - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Outstanding review - really enjoyed your detailed assessment of the Nexus one compared to the IPone and Palm Pre. I have read a number of reviews on the Nexus one lately determining if it is the right device for me or not. After reading this review I am certainly more inclined to purchase it than before; especially based on it's pros and cons versus the IPhone. Thanks!

    Brian
    Reply
  • cj100570 - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    All in all I'm not feeling this review. There was way to much time spent comparing the Nexus to the iPhone. And your complaints about the notification system used by Android is just asinine. I'm the former owner of both an original and 3G iPhone and Android simply puts the iPhone OS to shame. The iPhone had it's 15 minutes of fame but it's time to face facts that Apples way of doing things is the biggest problem the iPhone has. As a smartphone it is a #FAIL. Sure it sells well but the honest truth is that most people buy it because it's an Apple product and because of all the apps, 80% useless, that Apple and AT&T trot out as the big selling point. Reply

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