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

  • Antioch18x - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    Not only that but I didn't see mention of using a background task killer with "auto kill." (But, granted, I didn't *read* the whole article as I already own a N1 and didn't need to see your impressions of it). Due to the Android's method of multitasking, many times you don't actually exit an app when you think you do - it continues running in the background. You really do need a background task auto-killer to get the best battery life. This is one flaw, I think, in Android.

    Anyways, keeping this in mind I find that your battery life tests may be off. I get better battery life on my N1 than the old iPhone 3G.
  • spideryk - Saturday, April 03, 2010 - link

    There are alternative keyboards available for the android. as of right now swype keyboard is the best available means of entering text on a smart phone. once you get used to swype, you only need one hand to type and most of the time do not need to look at the keyboard to type. a must have on android. Reply
  • bob1939 - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Great review as usual but you missed something I consider critical. The lack of support for hands free bluetooth dialing.
    Where I live it can cost $180 if you are caught using a handheld phone while driving, so Hands Free dialing is a must.
    Worse Google insists in calling his shortcoming an enhancement and shows no sign of fixing it in the near term.
    For me this is a showstopper.

    Bob Benedetti
  • dvinnen - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Not sure what you mean by blue tooth dialing but there is certainly voice dialing. The whole voice integration in Android is really fantastic as Anand said in his review. Reply
  • bob1939 - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    I mean leave the phone in your pocket and press the button on the steering wheel, on the bluetooth speaker or bluetooth earpiece and say call whoever and the phone dials the number.
    My understanding of the N1 and other Android 2.1 devices is that you have to press something at least twice on the phone to operate the voice dial. Where I live that will cost $180 if you are seen by a cop fiddling with the phone while driving.

    Bob Benedetti
  • LongTimePCUser - Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - link

    I have a Motorola Droid and a 2006 Toyota Prius.
    The Droid connects via BlueTooth with the Prius.
    I can dial a phone number on the Droid from the Prius touch screen.
  • joe6 - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    1) Good: Nexus One has a microSD card slot. Big advantage in my book.
    2) Bad: Nexus One doesn't support Exchange/Outlook calendar sync without going through the Google cloud services. This is just silly and frankly, kills the deal for me. I think most Nexus One RMAs come from this bullet alone.
  • Pitne - Monday, April 05, 2010 - link

    There an app for this. How do you people miss the point that is android? Android is all about being open and not LOCKED DOWN like apple. So go download the more functional exchange apps and STFU Reply
  • Cali3350 - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Not sure if you posted it and I missed it or if you simply don't want to say in a public forum (which is understandable) but which do you , Anand, see yourself using in the future - the Nexus One or the iPhone 3GS? That sort of message says a lot about the current state of the platforms. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Sunday, April 04, 2010 - link

    Honestly, I'm torn.

    After the review I switched back to the 3GS because of the simplicity and the keyboard (I type a *lot*). In doing so, I miss the screen, form factor (ugh it was painful holding the iPhone to my head for an hour long phonecall vs. the Nexus One), some of the apps/features and the speed of the Nexus One. Today my answer would be the 3GS, but after using the Nexus One so much over the past few weeks I have to say that some aspects of the iPhone really do feel archaic.

    What I may do going forward is continue to alternate between the two to get a better feel for their respective strengths and weaknesses.

    Take care,

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