The Fastest GPU in a Smartphone

One thing I’ve learned over the past several years is that if you’re not the original manufacturer of something and are simply a glorified parts assembler, you generally have no clue how to do something right. There are obvious exceptions (Apple appears to be doing well), but this characterization applies to a lot of companies in the consumer electronics industry. They buy chips and parts from various suppliers, do a little bit of industrial design and generally don’t have the engineering know-how to deliver an optimized product into the marketplace.

Samsung is quite the opposite. Samsung is a DRAM manufacturer, a NAND flash manufacturer, and an application processor manufacturer. Samsung is responsible for the DRAM, NAND and silicon that goes into every iOS device sold by Apple. The company knows a thing or two about engineering.

The SoC inside the Epic 4G and other Galaxy S parts is called Hummingbird. It’s a 45nm SoC that implements a standard ARM Cortex A8 running at 1GHz and a PowerVR SGX 540 GPU. Despite Samsung’s experience in silicon manufacturing, it’s not much of an architecture/design company so we do see a lot of IP licensing within Hummingbird.

In this capacity Samsung is no different than TI, but what really sets Hummingbird apart is its GPU. Licensed from Imagination Technologies, the PowerVR SGX 540 is a significant improvement over the 530/535 in use in the iPhone, iPad and Motorola’s Droid X.

The SGX 530 has two USSE pipes and a single texturing unit. The 535 adds a second texturing unit, and the 540 adds another two USSE pipes. It’s unclear what clock speed the SGX 540 runs at inside Hummingbird, but I’d expect it’s somewhere near the 200MHz of the 535 in TI’s OMAP 3630.

Quake 3 Arena running on the PowerVR SGX 540

The added execution hardware does incur a power penalty, however Imagination lists it as less than double the SGX 535.

The performance improvement is tangible. Samsung’s Hummingbird faster in 3D games/apps than any other SoC used in a smartphone today:

Under Quake III we saw a 44.5% increase in performance over the Droid X. Compared to Qualcomm's Snapdragon, performance improves by nearly 2x.

Even in Qualcomm's own 3D test, the PowerVR SGX 540 is more than twice as fast as the Snapdragon. We see a 30% performance advantage over the OMAP 3630. I'd expect to see about the same advantage over Apple's A4.

Unfortunately for Samsung, 3D gaming hasn’t really taken off on Android as a platform. The best examples of what’s to come are what we’ve seen from Epic and id, but both of those demos were done on iOS (although I suspect Android versions would hit at some point) and we’re still pretty far away from having actual games based on those engines on mobile phones.

While the SGX 540 could be responsible for the Epic 4G’s smoother than expected UI, it’s mostly a waste of hardware today. Clearly you don’t need this powerful of a GPU to make scrolling through menus smooth. Perhaps Samsung has grand plans for Hummingbird or simply wanted to outdo the competition on paper. Higher resolution products due out in the future will demand faster GPUs (think tablets) so it’s possible that Hummingbird wasn’t specifically targeted for an 800 x 480 smartphone.

General CPU performance is comparable to the OMAP 3630 and what you’d expect from a 1GHz Cortex A8. The 45nm SoC should sip power but it’s unclear what Samsung is doing for power management on the SoC itself. While both Hummingbird and Apple’s A4 are manufactured at the same fab at 45nm and both use the Cortex A8, there’s a lot more to determine the total power consumption of an SoC.

Hummingbird’s memory bus is likely a 32-bit single channel LPDDR1 interface, but overall I’d say it’s safe to say that this is the fastest SoC currently shipping in a smartphone. Apple’s A4 used in the iPhone doesn’t run at 1GHz, and TI’s OMAP3630 uses the PowerVR SGX 530 compared to Samsung’s SGX 540. Unfortunately much of the performance advantage will go unused as 3D gaming simply isn’t that prevalent on Android phones today.

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  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Java's JIT could create code that is faster than C/C++. Because unlike C++ compiler, it also has runtime info about executables, it could know for sure, which of the if branches is more likely to be true, for instance.

    The only part of Java that was much slower than C++ was (and I think still is) sin/cos related functions. Since Sun had to guarantee "runs anywhere" with the exactly the same results, instead of using CPU's features they "manually" calculate it.
  • Voo - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Well java WAS slow - around ten years ago, but people have already made up their mind, it's hard to get new ideas into some heads. Though the lack of a JIT in dalvik hampered performance, but that's hardly something where you can blame the language for..

    Ah, just like all those people who still believe that manual memory managment is inherently faster than GC..
  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Java is not inherently slower than C++, but it does need more memory.

    The problem with Androids up to 2.2 was Dalvik VM that had no JIT.
  • designerfx - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    what a brilliant troll, or accidental. I'm not sure, but plenty of debunked this.

    What really brings down the entire samsung line of phones is that the GPS is horrible. I have one myself, and have the same issue on the vibrant as on the epic. Samsung really screwed the GPS up bigtime.
  • lwatcdr - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Well when faced with such a brilliant technical argument like "but Java sucks. Big time" what can one say.
    Is an article from back in 2004 about how those idiots at NASA used Java to control the Spirit rover on Mars.
    If only they had you available to show them how to do right.

    Man I get sick of this crap. I heard the same thing way back when. People complaining when programmers used high level languages to write programs instead of assembly.
    The thing is that it was all silliness just as it is now.
    What really counts isn't the language but the programmer using it.

    Android's speed issues tend to because by.
    1. Not using the GPU for the UI
    2. Using multitasking from the start.

    IOS has only just now gotten official multitasking and even that is limited.

    But really just drop the
  • Iksy - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Umm... to be clear, this is just the user interface used on Earth, which is something Java does well. The rovers themseves are controlled using VxWorks RTOS. VxWorks itself is written in C or C++ I believe. Reply
  • Ethaniel - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    Well, it's not the kind of technical argument everyone would like, but it gets to the point. Anand reviewed like half a dozen of Android phones, all with the same problem. So, or the companies are making exactly the same mistake with each and every model they launch, or Java is to blame. And no, I'm not trolling because I do want to Android to succeed. A troll is based on hate, and it usually doesn't check back the thread he/she started. And you haven't seen a single insult in this thread, right? ;) Reply
  • ktwebb - Monday, September 06, 2010 - link

    Sounds like an IPhone Fanboy that is trying his best to be subjective. Samsung actually did not get it right performance wise. They use an antiquated and slow file system. For a pleasurable UI experience on Android, the N1 is still king, especially on 2.2. The only way the samsung galaxy variants fly is with root access and ext2, 3 or 4 fixes. there are GPS fixes as well however where Samsung let down actually is in the UI with Touchwiz and their ridiculous homage to Apple. No wonder this twit liked it. Android people IMMEDIATELY change the launcher. Anyway, the Hardware on the Galaxy S is excellent. Samsung did their best to eff it up and only with tweaks and root level access is it a really strong phone. Google and Androids main problem is OS sprawl and fragmentation. They get that cleaned up and the IPhone 4 is a distant second mobile OS. Right now, with the clear advantages Android phones have, specifically customization and an open source community among others, it's essentially a wash. It's about what you prefer and are comfortable with. I'm an Android guy because I like to make my phone do what I want it to, not what Jobs wants my phone to be. Reply
  • StealthX32 - Monday, September 06, 2010 - link

    ktwebb, I don't think Anand reviewed it w/ the ext2 FS hack/fix (whatever you want to call it). The UI speed is fine from the factory; it's much better than the EVO 4G (even with Froyo) and on par w/ the N1, just not as good as it *could* be once you root it and fix the filesystem. Reply
  • ktwebb - Tuesday, September 07, 2010 - link

    N1 Froyo is faster than stock Galaxy S Variants. And yeah, he didn't review with hacks and I certainly understand why he wouldn't. Shouldn't need them. But that is a Samsung issue, not Android. Samsung has the potential for a very good handset with the Galaxy S. They are trying their best to eff it up though. I haven't played with the EVO but had android phones since the G1 inception. The N1 was the best UI experience after Froyo was pushed. And far better than any IPHone I've used, although my experience with 4 is limited. Reply

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