The Fastest Smartphone SoC Today: Samsung Exynos 4210

Samsung has been Apple's sole application processor supplier since the release of the original iPhone. It's unclear how much Samsung contributes to the design process, especially with later SoCs like the A4 and A5 carrying the Apple brand. It's possible that Samsung is now no more than a manufacturing house for Apple.

Needless to say, the past few years of supplying SoCs for the iPhone and iPad have given Samsung a good idea of what the market wants from an application processor. We first got the hint that Samsung knew what it was up to with its Hummingbird SoC, used in the Galaxy S line of smartphones.

Hummingbird featured a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 core and an Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 540 GPU. Although those specs don't seem very impressive today, Hummingbird helped Samsung ship more Android smartphones than any of its competitors in 2010. At a high level, Hummingbird looked a lot like Apple's A4 used in the iPad and iPhone 4. Its predecessor looked a lot like Apple's 3rd generation SoC used in the iPhone 3GS.

Hummingbird's successor however is Samsung's first attempt at something different. This is the Exynos 4210 application processor:

We first met the Exynos back when it was called Orion at this year's Mobile World Congress. Architecturally, the Exynos 4210 isn't too far from Apple's A5, NVIDIA's Tegra 2 or TI's OMAP 4. This is the same CPU configuration as all of the aforementioned SoCs, with a twist. While the A5, Tegra 2 and OMAP 4 all have a pair of ARM Cortex A9 cores running at 1GHz, Exynos pushes the default clock speed up to 1.2GHz. Samsung is able to hit higher clock speeds either through higher than normal voltages or as a result of its close foundry/design relationship.


Exynos 4210 with its PoP LPDDR2

ARM's Cortex A9 has configurable cache sizes. To date all of the A9 implementations we've seen use 32KB L1 caches (32KB instruction cache + 32KB data cache) and Samsung's Exynos is no exception. The L2 cache size is also configurable, however we haven't seen any variance there either. Apple, NVIDIA, Samsung and TI have all standardized on a full 1MB L2 cache shared between both cores. Only Qualcomm is left with a 512KB L2 cache but that's for a non-A9 design.

Where we have seen differences in A9 based SoCs are in the presence of ARM's Media Processing Engine (NEON SIMD unit) and memory controller configuration. Apple, Samsung and TI all include an MPE unit in each A9 core. ARM doesn't make MPE a requirement for the A9 since it has a fully pipelined FPU, however it's a good idea to include one given most A8 designs featured a similar unit. Without MPE support you run the risk of delivering an A9 based SoC that occasionally has lower performance than an A8 w/ NEON solution. Given that Apple, Samsung and TI all had NEON enabled A8 SoCs in the market last year, it's no surprise that their current A9 designs include MPE units.

NVIDIA on the other hand didn't have an SoC based on ARM's Cortex A8. At the same time it needed to be aggressive on pricing to gain some traction in the market. As a result of keeping die size to a minimum, the Tegra 2 doesn't include MPE support. NEON code can't be executed on Tegra 2. With Tegra 3 (Kal-El), NVIDIA added in MPE support but that's a discussion we'll have in a couple of months.

Although based on Qualcomm's own design, the Snapdragon cores include NEON support as well. Qualcomm's NEON engine is 128-bits wide vs. 64-bits wide in ARM's standard implementation. Samsung lists the Exynos 4210 as supporting both 64-bit and 128-bit NEON however given this is a seemingly standard A9 implementation I believe the MPE datapath is only 64-bits wide. In other words, 128-bit operations can be executed but not at the same throughput as 64-bit operations.

The same designs that implemented MPE also implemented a dual-channel memory controller. Samsung's Exynos features two 32-bit LPDDR2 memory channels, putting it on par with Apple's A5, Qualcomm's Snapdragon and TI's OMAP 4. Only NVIDIA's Tegra 2 features a single 32-bit LPDDR2 memory channel. 

ARM Cortex A9 Based SoC Comparison
  Apple A5 Samsung Exynos 4210 TI OMAP 4 NVIDIA Tegra 2
Clock Speed Up to 1GHz Up to 1.2GHz Up to 1GHz Up to 1GHz
Core Count 2 2 2 2
L1 Cache Size 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB
L2 Cache Size 1MB 1MB 1MB 1MB
Memory Interface Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Single Channel LP-DDR2
NEON Support Yes Yes Yes No
Manufacturing Process 45nm 45nm 45nm 40nm

Like most of its competitors, Samsung's memory controller does allow for some flexibility when choosing memory types. In addition to LPDDR2, the Exynos 4210 supports standard DDR2 and DDR3. Maximum data rate is limited to 800MHz regardless of memory type.

Based on everything I've said thus far, the Exynos 4210 should be among the highest performing SoCs on the market today. It has the same clock for clock performance as an Apple A5, NVIDIA Tegra 2 and TI OMAP 4430. Samsung surpassed those designs by delivering a 20% higher operating frequency, which should be tangible in typical use.

To find out let's turn to our CPU performance suite. We'll start with our browser benchmarks: SunSpider and BrowserMark:

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9

Rightware BrowserMark

Despite the 20% clock speed advantage the Galaxy S 2 isn't any faster than Motorola's Droid 3 based on a 1GHz TI OMAP 4430. Unfortunately this doesn't tell us too much since both benchmarks take into account browser performance as well as total platform performance. While the Galaxy S 2 is clearly among the fastest smartphones we've ever reviewed it looks like Motorola's browser may actually be a bit more efficient at javascript execution.

Where we do see big gains from the Exynos' higher clock speed is in our Linpack tests. The single-threaded benchmark actually shows more scaling than just clock speed, indicating that here are other (possibly software?) factors at play here. Either way it's clear that the 20% increase in clock speed can surface as tangible if the conditions are right:

Linpack - Single-threaded

Linpack - Multi-threaded

A clock speed advantage today is nice but it's something that Samsung's competitors will be able to deliver in the not too distant future. Where Samsung chose to really differentiate itself was in the graphics department. The Exynos 4210 uses ARM's Mali-400 MP4 GPU.

Shipping in smartphones today we have GPUs from three vendors: Qualcomm (Adreno), Imagination Technologies (PowerVR SGX) and NVIDIA (GeForce). Of those vendors, only Qualcomm and NVIDIA produce SoCs - Imagination simply licenses its technology to SoC vendors.

Both Apple and Intel hold significant amounts of Imagination stock, presumably to protect against an eager SoC vendor from taking control of the company.

ARM also offers GPU IP in addition to its CPU designs, however we've seen very little uptake until now. Before we get to Mali's architecture, we need to talk a bit about the different types of GPUs on the market today.

Audio Quality Explored by François Simond Understanding Rendering Techniques
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  • Deann - Friday, October 07, 2011 - link

    Maybe I misunderstood, but if you take a look at this swedish website the Samoled + looks much better than the Amoled: http://www.appsandroid.dk/joomla/skaermtest-af-htc... Reply
  • aritai - Saturday, October 08, 2011 - link

    You may want to consider counting number of web pages browsed before battery exhaustion and report those as well. Perhaps even calculate a "joules per page viewed" as part of your power metrics. (i.e. it may be that running at max benchmark rate on a more powerful system displays twice as many pages - and that these systems are being penalized for not being as slow as their competitors - where in terms of raw energy usage they would last longer than their slower competitors if asked only to do the same amount of work). Reply
  • Paulman - Thursday, October 20, 2011 - link

    I just started reading some comments about upgrading the Galaxy S II to 2.3.5 of Gingerbread, and people are reporting improvements in the sound quality. They were quite surprised! Do you think one of you / Francois can take the time to look into it? Thanks. Reply
  • san3536 - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    Hi
    I am planning to buy a Samsung Galaxy S2 in US and to use it in India.... is it possible that way to use it in different country ? i would like to know what are specifications to be asked for the same like unlocked & International etc ... does unlocked mean just it can be used on any network only in US or else where or is international version mandatory ? please inform the disadvantages of using the phone in India which is brought in US ...like any of phone functions wont work etc ..
    Reply
  • Naengmyun - Monday, November 21, 2011 - link

    Me and about a gazillion of my GS2 owners are experiencing problem connecting to our home WiFi networks. Everything, including visitors' laptops, iPads, Android Tablets, smartypwns, netbooks and even the kitchen sink connect seamlessly to my Great Home WiFi Network. But not the GS2! Amazing. Everyone's playing the blame game for now~provider says it's the router, router tech support says it's the phone, Samsung says it's me, phone carrier wants to know if I'd be interested in their latest unlimited plan.
    Anyone else having trouble with GS2 WiFi connectivity?

    Bibm
    Reply
  • Ravil - Saturday, November 26, 2011 - link

    i bought the samsung galaxy s2 from sri lanka for LKR85,000/= on the 4th of november 2011 with android 2.3.3 and i have some issues with it.

    1) screen issue
    when the phone is on the lowest brightness level the left part of the screen has a yellowish tint and i took it to the sri lankan warranty agents THE PHONE COMPANY four times and they replaced the screen and now its worse now the whole screen has a yellowish tint.

    2) signal issue
    the signal is unstable signal bars are at 2bars sometimes 3bars sometimes full and when i connect to the in ternet it connects from hsdpa and edge, when i'm not connected to the internet it shows the 3g icon, the above mentioned warranty agents THE PHONE COMPANY replaced the motherboard but i still have the issue.

    3) no NFC
    i don't have NFC (near field communication)

    pls help me with these issues can samsung replace the whole phone and give me a new one?
    my email address is ravildealwis7@gmail.com
    Reply
  • sgxsingapore1 - Friday, February 03, 2012 - link

    Singapore Exchange (SGX) is working with Singapore's first futures brokerage on a professional traders development programme,SGX Singapore : Live News & Updates from SGX Singapore .These were among the most active shares in the market <a href="http://sgxsingapore.com/">SGX Singapore</a> Reply
  • sgxsingapore1 - Friday, February 03, 2012 - link

    Singapore Exchange (SGX) is working with Singapore's first futures brokerage on a professional traders development programme,SGX Singapore : Live News & Updates from SGX Singapore .These were among the most active shares in the market SGX Singapore Reply
  • sgxsingapore1 - Friday, February 03, 2012 - link

    Singapore Exchange (SGX) is working with Singapore's first futures brokerage on a professional traders development programme,SGX Singapore : Live News & Updates from SGX Singapore .These were among the most active shares in the market <a href="http://sgxsingapore.com/">SGX Singapore</a> Reply
  • Jedi2155 - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    I have an Epic 4G (Original SGS), and I have to say the audio quality is horrendous compared to an iPhone, Creative Zen X-Fi, and my home X-Fi on my PC. Nothing compares, especially since I hear some clear static even though nothing is playing pointing to poor isolation. To say that the original SGS phones were good sound quality (my sister's also has the same Epic 4G with same issue) would be hard to swallow based on my personnel experience. Reply

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