The Fastest GPU in a Smartphone

One thing I’ve learned over the past several years is that if you’re not the original manufacturer of something and are simply a glorified parts assembler, you generally have no clue how to do something right. There are obvious exceptions (Apple appears to be doing well), but this characterization applies to a lot of companies in the consumer electronics industry. They buy chips and parts from various suppliers, do a little bit of industrial design and generally don’t have the engineering know-how to deliver an optimized product into the marketplace.

Samsung is quite the opposite. Samsung is a DRAM manufacturer, a NAND flash manufacturer, and an application processor manufacturer. Samsung is responsible for the DRAM, NAND and silicon that goes into every iOS device sold by Apple. The company knows a thing or two about engineering.

The SoC inside the Epic 4G and other Galaxy S parts is called Hummingbird. It’s a 45nm SoC that implements a standard ARM Cortex A8 running at 1GHz and a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU. Despite Samsung’s experience in silicon manufacturing, it’s not much of an architecture/design company so we do see a lot of IP licensing within Hummingbird.

In this capacity Samsung is no different than TI, but what really sets Hummingbird apart is its GPU. Licensed from Imagination Technologies, the PowerVR SGX 540 is a significant improvement over the 530/535 in use in the iPhone, iPad and Motorola’s Droid X.

The SGX 530 has two USSE pipes and a single texturing unit. The 535 adds a second texturing unit, and the 540 adds another two USSE pipes. It’s unclear what clock speed the SGX 540 runs at inside Hummingbird, but I’d expect it’s somewhere near the 200MHz of the 535 in TI’s OMAP 3630.


Quake 3 Arena running on the PowerVR SGX 540

The added execution hardware does incur a power penalty, however Imagination lists it as less than double the SGX 535.

The performance improvement is tangible. Samsung’s Hummingbird faster in 3D games/apps than any other SoC used in a smartphone today:

Under Quake III we saw a 44.5% increase in performance over the Droid X. Compared to Qualcomm's Snapdragon, performance improves by nearly 2x.

Even in Qualcomm's own 3D test, the PowerVR SGX 540 is more than twice as fast as the Snapdragon. We see a 30% performance advantage over the OMAP 3630. I'd expect to see about the same advantage over Apple's A4.

Unfortunately for Samsung, 3D gaming hasn’t really taken off on Android as a platform. The best examples of what’s to come are what we’ve seen from Epic and id, but both of those demos were done on iOS (although I suspect Android versions would hit at some point) and we’re still pretty far away from having actual games based on those engines on mobile phones.

While the SGX 540 could be responsible for the Epic 4G’s smoother than expected UI, it’s mostly a waste of hardware today. Clearly you don’t need this powerful of a GPU to make scrolling through menus smooth. Perhaps Samsung has grand plans for Hummingbird or simply wanted to outdo the competition on paper. Higher resolution products due out in the future will demand faster GPUs (think tablets) so it’s possible that Hummingbird wasn’t specifically targeted for an 800 x 480 smartphone.

General CPU performance is comparable to the OMAP 3630 and what you’d expect from a 1GHz Cortex A8. The 45nm SoC should sip power but it’s unclear what Samsung is doing for power management on the SoC itself. While both Hummingbird and Apple’s A4 are manufactured at the same fab at 45nm and both use the Cortex A8, there’s a lot more to determine the total power consumption of an SoC.

Hummingbird’s memory bus is likely a 32-bit single channel LPDDR1 interface, but overall I’d say it’s safe to say that this is the fastest SoC currently shipping in a smartphone. Apple’s A4 used in the iPhone doesn’t run at 1GHz, and TI’s OMAP3630 uses the PowerVR SGX 530 compared to Samsung’s SGX 540. Unfortunately much of the performance advantage will go unused as 3D gaming simply isn’t that prevalent on Android phones today.

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  • Dane74 - Monday, September 06, 2010 - link

    My Epic is fine but the GPS is not, and the fixes out there for the other Galaxies are irrelevant to Epic, which has new, different, and in many ways, worse, GPS problems. Samsung has issued one single recommendation for the poor GPS on Epic: turn on cellular tower location estimates. Some fix!

    I am no iPhone fan. i can't stand them or the people who use them. But the GPS problems on the Epic are real. For starters look at the pics posted in this review. They are consistent with what anyone who tests the GPS finds -- the GPS reception hardware itself on Epic is weak. Look at that satellite strength.

    Epic's other GPS problem is that frequent resets are required, as Epic does not discard expired GPS assistance data, and does not attempt to get new assistance data, often causing complete inability to get a GPS fix, even when many satellites are in view.
    Reply
  • Desslok - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    <b><q>I am no iPhone fan. i can't stand them or the people who use them...</b></q>

    WOW! Way to be an asshat of epic scale. Just because I have an iPhone you can't stand me? I thought only Apple users were supposed to be such arrogant asses?
    Reply
  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    I also can't stand you. In my opinion by agreeing to use hardware with unbelievably draconian restrictions (not being able to copy stuff from my own device? not being able to copy stuff to my own device from more than one source? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?), you are asking form even more crap in the future. Reply
  • Desslok - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Yet again the users on this site do not understand how most people use their phones and their way is the only way. Like bearxor has said in a later post most people take the phone out of the box and start using it. They don't root it and then start tweaking it.

    For what i use my phone for the iPhone works for me, am I saying it is the best phone/OS of all time of course not; it has it flaws. I am also not bashing anyone who uses any other type of phone/OS, It is a freakin phone/OS people it isn't that important.

    Medi01-Hate if you want, but the iPhone works for me. Have fun judging others on material things, let me know how that works out for you in the future.
    Reply
  • ktwebb - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    I didn't say the GPS problems weren't valid. I just mentioned fixes were available. Multiple "Fixes" Unsatisfactory to ship their phones with broken GPS but that's Samsung. But once again, that's a hit on Samsung, not on the OS. Reply
  • bearxor - Monday, September 06, 2010 - link

    Why does everyone on sites like this think their way is the only thing people will do. Do you really think a lot of people are going to buy a phone and then root it and then tweak it?

    No!

    Most people are going to buy the phone, take it out of the box and begin using it. Heck, before switching to an iPhone in 2008, I used a Treo 700wx for two years, the longest I had ever used a WinMo device at a time, because I just got so sick and tired of HTC's crap. I was always having to reset the phone. Switch out ROMs on the phone. I never knew if a phone call was going to come through on a PPC-6600 or PPC-6700. Enough already!

    I know that makes me less of a "geek" but I was cooking roms and flashing devices before a lot of people even discovered regular phones with qwerty keyboards on them.

    I found this review to be a great example of what I would expect of the phone if I were to march down to a Sprint store, picked one up and started using it right away. That's all I really want from my phone. For it to do the functions that it's advertised to do.
    Reply
  • nermie - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    I think you also forget what website we are at. Just last a couple weeks ago there was an article on tuning your memory using a custom made bios. Every article on computer hardware usually covers the intended consumer point of view first, and then gets right into dissecting and tweaking the hardware to squeeze every last drop of performance out of it. Seems like kind of a shame to not at least mention how much faster the phone can be if you do a few things such as overclock the cpu or a file system fix. Reply
  • erple2 - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Normally, I'd completely agree with you. However, taking the phone as a complete package, I think that Anand has done a good job in reviewing the <i>phone</i> as you get it, and not post tweaking.

    While it may be common to buy a motherboard and CPU then tweak it until you squeeze the maximum amount of power out of it, it's less common to do that with a laptop.

    Similarly, not very many people buy a Dell then go into overclocking options with it (since it's not necessarily as easy to do on a Dell than a home-assembled computer).

    But I do agree that there's a myriad of things that can be done to the phone after the fact. I'd wager that it's possible Anandtech is coming up with a "Android tweaking" article at some point in the future that goes into some small detail of the things that are available to the end user, and how those can impact performance of the phone to the end user.
    Reply
  • ktwebb - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    That's fair. I've said in multiple posts Samsung blew it releasing this phone before properly QA testing. I think you missed my point however. Reply
  • dvinnen - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Don't like the fan boy accusations but he does bring up a point. With the lag fixes it does benchmark a lot faster (Look up One Click Lag Fix on the market, will root your phone and install the lag fix and GPS fix). Have to wonder how it will fly with 2.2 Reply

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