Qualcomm has announced that its first 64-bit chip will be a Cortex-A53 for the mid-range market. At first glance, this might not seem very exciting – MediaTek has already blazed a trail for high-efficiency quad-core chips with modest single-threaded performance, and much of the discussion in smartphones revolves around the highest-end hardware.
Don’t be fooled, though – the Snapdragon 410 might be based on an ARM standard design rather than a Qualcomm custom core, but this chip could revolutionise the smartphone market.
Architecturally, the Cortex-A53 is an evolution of the Cortex-A7’s design – it retains that chip’s partial dual-issue capability, in-order processing, and its focus on energy efficiency.
New this time around is a significant improvement in branch prediction, a redesigned L1/L2 cache subsystem, better power gating, larger caches (optional), and better memory throughput.
These types of advances can pay huge dividends in terms of total performance, and ARM expects them to. Its internal predictions for the Cortex-A53 are below:
These performance figures are all in 32-bit code. 64-bit code performance on Android is still an open question and we don’t know how the A53 will stack up against competitors in that arena, but the 32-bit jump looks great. Quad-core is expected to remain the performance focus – octa-core chips, despite some noise from MediaTek, aren’t expected to make much of a splash.
Qualcomm pushes into lower-cost devices
The next interesting titbit about this chip is that it’s aimed at “sub-$150” (£90) devices. The release of the excellent Moto G priced at just under £150 with a quad-core Cortex-A7 is proof that the days of £500+ off-contract smartphones are numbered. Manufacturers are going to push into sub-£150 devices, which opens the door to new buyers, pre-paid customers who want a decent smartphone, and anyone who doesn’t want to be stuck on a two year contract.
Here, Qualcomm will face determined competition from companies like MediaTek and Rockchip. Both manufacturers have staked out positions in lower-end SoCs, and both are ramping their own 64-bit products – but buyers who want to stick with Qualcomm-designed products will have an option to do so.
The Cortex-A57 – the A53’s bigger brother – is going to drive the performance story forward in 2014, but its ability to move the ball forward will be blunted by the sharp power constraints of the mobile environment. Most companies tend to market devices based on boost clocks, not stock – when benchmarked, phones quickly begin to pogo between minimum and maximum clock speeds as the chip warms up. High-efficiency cores that can maintain maximum clock speed for longer may therefore close the gap with the larger high performance chips that can burst up to much higher performance, but can’t sustain the frequency in the long run.
The one downside to the Snapdragon 410 will be modest GPU performance. The Adreno 306 (a tweaked Adreno 305) is a much smaller implementation of the Adreno 325 that powers the high-end Snapdragon line. Final performance will depend on clock speeds and screen resolution, but light-to-mid-range gaming will probably be the limit. For many buyers, that’s going to be enough – particularly if the GPU is clocked well, and if the entire phone is coming in at under £150 sim-free.
The Snapdragon 410 will be fabricated on TSMC’s 28nm LP process, and is expected to arrive in commercial quantities in the second half of 2014.