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


View All Comments

  • Johnmcl7 - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Very much agreed, I thought far too much time was wasted on Iphone references which given the Iphone generally does everything worse I really couldn't care less about it. Most noticeably multitasking was only given a brief mention despite being being detailed extensively for the Palm Pre reviews.

    I didn't understand the complaint about the notifications either, to me as a non-Android user the system makes perfect sense - it seems entirely logical to have icons for each notification which when tapped show a list with text on each one.

  • jamawass - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Great review Anand. do you think the speech recognition worked well enough to be a complete subsitute for typed entry? I've been averse to touchscreen only devices (gave iphone to my wife) because I hate typing on them. Also did you try gesture search which has a highly publicized feature not too long ago?

    I'm currently using a treo pro windows mobile and even with all it's lack of polish it does feel like I am carrying a portable computer with me. I was hoping Windows7 series would enhance this but it appears as if MS is going to take the Apple approach in this regard. Looks like Android has picked up the windows mobile torch and literally flown to the stars with it.
  • Sidharthmodi - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    I liked the Depth in this Product Review. Thanks Anand. Reply
  • has407 - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Appreciate the depth and that it's based on extended use. Using the 3GS for comparison is spot-on (everything is relative). Thanks again. Reply
  • Chloiber - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Can we expect a review on the HTC Desire or Evo 4G?

    I know the specs are really quite the same (especially on the Desire) but HTC Sense UI gives the whole thing really a different touch and, according to first reviews, a much better usability.
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    We've been trying to get in touch with HTC to get review samples of both of those products. So far we haven't received any response but we won't stop trying :) Worst case, we'll just buy an EVO 4G when it comes out.

    Feel free to write HTC to provide some encouragement if you'd like :)

    Take care,
  • Chloiber - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Well, I'm waiting for my desire too :P

    Evo 4G will probably take even longer....to test Sense UI one can use the HTC Legend, Desire or Evo 4G - shouldn't make any real difference.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to it :)
  • relativityboy - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    If you already have an Android powered phone you can find the Sense UI online, and run it with the appropriate Rom and tools. I just saw it running on a G1 today. It was pretty fast. :) Reply
  • relativityboy - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    A very lengthy and thorough review of the bits, but I didn't come away with a solid understanding of how the device fits together as a user experience...the review feels, disjointed.

    The keyboard is narrow, how does that fit with the voice transcription?

    Sometimes scrolling in the 'app drawer' is slow, but what else was going on in the background? Were you pulling data, listening to music, what else was going on in the phone? The device/os is a true multi-threaded environment for applications. I didn't notice any emphasis there (a major win over iPhone).

    Did you try doing any benchmarking? Use 'Task Killer' or 'Setcpu'?

    Android is OPEN, unlike apple's mobile products.
    You can install apps that aren't in the app store.
    Memory is super-upgradeable (when was the last time a 4Gb or 8Gb iPhone could be upgraded to 32Gb for the price of a micro-sd chip?)

    The comment "It's Mac vs PC all over again" I think is totally missing representing what's going on here. Yet you hit the nail on the head later when you said Apple sees it as a device that's peripheral to laptops/pcs while Google is aiming for what it could be. Apple had a great idea, the iPhone. Google had a great idea a mobile environment/platform to allow lots of people to have great ideas. Google wants to let the world do the creating. The Nexus One as a device is a punctuation mark in a much larger story that includes the G1, Devour, HTC Evo, Droid, and others. Software development kits are available for-free for just about every platform you can shake a stick ate. Google is harnessing the creative powers of everyone who wants to get in on the game... The iPhone is just, well, Apple's 'one thing'.

    A very respected developer friend of mine once said, "In a contest between your software/idea and the real world, the real world always wins." Google knows this. Apple doesn't.

    I'm definitely an Android person, both by UI preference and ideology, but I don't feel like you've really tried, or given yourself enough time to 'get' what this platform is about.
  • jasperjones - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Agree that Android's openness is of huge importance. On an iPhone, you can't even install an app that features a woman in bikini, Apple won't allow it. In this context, I always have to think of Tim Bray's statement that

    "The iPhone vision of the mobile internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disneyfied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers."

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