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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  • dagamer34 - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    On pg 15, Galaxy S uses a SGX 540 GPU, not 530. Other than that, great review! Reply
  • Synaesthesia - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    Staggering review, you really are the most comprehensive and scientific reviewer around, bravo!

    Samsung have really impressed with this phone, in terms of how much effort they have invested in the hardware and software. One thing still stands out for me, the battery life. While good, it still doesn't hold a candle to the iPhone 4, as shown on the charts.
    Reply
  • LostViking - Saturday, September 17, 2011 - link

    What do you mean?
    Its about 30% worse when web browsing (mostly because of the much larger screen I reckon), but better in the other tests.

    If you are one of those old timers who actually use the phone for talking the SGSII is about 30 better ;)
    When I am low on battery, and don't have access to a charger, that's usually what I would prioritize.
    Reply
  • xdrol - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    For me the mentioned Cat 5 limit looks reasonable - you don't get user-level 2.0 Mbps because of the overhead of the PDCP/RLC/MACd protocols (about 15% -> 2.0 Mbps is 1.7 Mbps for IP). Reply
  • wilky76 - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    Alot of people that have the Samsung Galaxy S2 are suffering from framerate problems when using either 720p or 1080p in low light including myself.

    What basically happens is when the camera tries to focus in lowlight the framerates drop to around 13fps, then jump back upto around 30fps again, basically making any HD video recording useless in low light because of the stuttering, the only fix that is known is to drop the exposure to -2 as this stop the stuttering, or use 480p when indoors or poor light.

    Some folks have returned their SGS2 because of this problem, only to receive another with the same problem.

    There has been a couple of camera firmware updates on Samung own app site, which to this date still hasn't sorted the problem out & in some cases people that weren't suffering from this problem, now have it after updating the camera firmware.

    Can any of you guys at Anandtech test your SGS2 in low light with either 720p or 1080p to see if the mobile you received for reviewing also suffer from this problem.

    But what is strange is that not everbody has the framerate problem, so it could be due to which sensor you get with your SGS2, and could proberly be sorted with a firmware update eventually.

    Anyways people with this problem and there is a few can be found in this post over at XDA

    http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1...
    Reply
  • DrSlump - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    Hi, i have exactly the same problem with my samsung galaxy s2.
    I got casual stuttering (a frame loss) during normal light conditions and severe stuttering under low light conditions.
    As soon as the firmware raises the sensor gain to match the detected light, the framerate goes down to 25fps and when autofocus occours the framerate goes down to 13fps, and then returns back to 25fps when the autofocus is finished.
    I olso noticed that when i try to frame a tv or a monitor, severe banding occours. Even taking a video when the light source is a tv or a monitor, banding occours. Seems like the isp isn't able to compensate the frequency of the light source.
    In a lot of situations it's impossible to take a video due to the severe stuttering :(
    Any one of you has these problems? How to solve it?

    I would like to ask to the autor:
    did you notice some problem with the display? There is a thread in the xda-developers forum that speaks about the yellow tinting or faded out left side of the screen. Please can you report about this problem?
    Reply
  • B3an - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    Why dont you just admit it's the best phone around hands down? :) Not just the best Android phone. It's clearly miles superior to the outdated iPhone 4.

    Shame you yanks have had to wait forever to get it, only to get 3 different versions that dont even look as good and have ridiculous names. I've been using a GSII since April and it's just unmatched.
    Reply
  • ph00ny - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    This yank got it on the UK launch day and i've been enjoying it since Reply
  • steven75 - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    It's not better in battery life, audio quality, display resolution and sharpness, or the many ways that iOS is better (AirPlay, app selection AND quality), immediate OS updates, etc).

    Gread Android phone though for those interested in 4.3" displays, which definitely isn't everyone. Personally, I'd wait for the Prime.
    Reply
  • steven75 - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    Oh and outdoor display brightness, which even at 100% isn't a match for iPhone, but then it's even capped at 75% for temp reasons. Reply

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