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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  • kreacher - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    I was disappointed to see that there is no mention of the screen 's inability to display 24bit gradients while Samsung claims its a screen capable of displaying 16M colors. Reply
  • supercurio - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    See my answer for Astri.

    Maybe you only checked a gradient in Web Browser or a specific app that forces 16bit surfaces.
    Each app has the ability to choose how the rendering is done in this regard.
    Internally, the Super AMOLED controller works in much more than 24bit in order to proceed to complex color-space conversions between the a digital frame buffer and an analog, very large dynamic range OLEDs.
    Reply
  • lemmo - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    Great review, and incredible detail on the audio quality. Shame the SGS2 has taken a step backwards on audio. Any info on the likely spec for the audio on the Samsung Nexus Prime?

    Also, any recommendations on reviews of best smartphones for audio quality? cheers :)
    Reply
  • supercurio - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the feedback!
    I really need it in order to improve next review.

    Organize it differently for better readability, maybe evaluate other aspects as well (like recording)

    I have no info about what's in Nexus Prime but I'd like to :P
    If somebody can send me a report: https://market.android.com/details?id=org.projectv... I'll study it.

    Best devices I know in terms of audio quality:
    - with Voodoo Sound: Nexus S, Galaxy S family, Galaxy Tab 7".
    - with or without Voodoo sound: Asus Transformer
    - soon with Voodoo Sound: Galaxy Tab 10.1 (incredible power stage for the headphone amp)
    - iPhones/iPad: clean DAC but boring headphone amp (unable to drive many cans to adequate levels)

    And.. many I don't know! (yet?)
    Reply
  • lemmo - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - link

    Thanks supercurio, very helpful. I'll keep looking for more info on the Nexus Prime.

    Shame none of the other phones/tablets you mention have got the right spec for me.

    In practice, do you think the 'average user' will notice the poorer audio quality on the SGS2?
    Reply
  • yellowchilli - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    a very very good read thank you
    i've owned the sgs2 since its EU launch..it's interesting to see the slight differences/improvements samsung has put into the US release (e.g. the power button, camera ui)
    Reply
  • mcquade181 - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    I've had my SGS2 here in Australia for two months now and on a recent snow trip noticed some deficiencies compared to my friends Nokia N8. We both use the same provider (Telstra 3G on 850MHz):
    1. Whilst travelling there were periods where I completely lost reception whereas the N8 still had a signal and was able to make calls. This suggests that the SGS2 is a bit lacking in cellular sensitivity (and note that the N8 is not all that flash either when compared to the old Nokia N95).
    2. In our snow accomodation I could not get a reliable WiFi signal from the local hotspot whereas the N8 could (it was marginal, but it did work).
    3. Bluetooth on the SGS2 is unreliable with some devices. It keeps disconnecting after a few minutes.

    That said I do like my SGS2 and is better in many other ways to the Nokia N8 - in particular earphone volume and call clarity where the N8 is deficient. Of course android has a much wider selection of available apps than does the Nokia, although surprisingly ALL my favourite apps are also available for the Nokia.

    Regards from down under, Graham Rawolle.
    Reply
  • willstay - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    What a coincidence. After two Androids, I actually bought N8 and later sold it to get SGS2. Before Belle, swype was only available in landscape and my must-have apps are not there for Symbian. Reply
  • jcompagner - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 - link

    yes that is the only drawback i also can find of the SGS2..
    Wifi reception is really not up to standards.
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    I'm not happy with the battery tests - they don't show real life usage. I'd still like to know what happens with the battery if you just leave the phone in your pocket for most of the day, or what happens if you leave it in standby overnight. All of my co-workers complain about battery life with their Android phones, and all want to get iPhones the next time around. The batteries seem to drain excessively with the phones doing nothing, and they are often dead when they go to use them. Who cares if you can browse the web for 7 hours or whatever...I just want the phone to be ready to use if its been sitting on my desk for half the day, or if I forget to charge it overnight. This is way more important - at least for someone like me who travels. (actually, I work a lot in wafer fabs around the world, and crappy reception in the fabs often drain battery quickly).

    I guess it will depend on what Apps are installed, and you use push notifications, but it would be useful to have a test where you charge the phone, and then let it sit for 8 hours doing nothing, and then report the battery life. The older Android phones seemed terrible at this, while my iPhone 3GS is great.

    This phone looks awesome, but I would need this information before I would consider buying it.
    Reply

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