What’s the deal on the different GPUs?
Unlike the CPU component in an SoC that’s primarily supplied by ARM, the graphics portion is manufactured by multiple vendors which gives companies the flexibility to pick and choose which GPU goes best with the CPU in their SoC. While back in the day, the primary job of the graphics card was rendering 3D images and displaying them on the screen, today GPUs are used for much more than just playing games and are as crucial as the CPU, if not more. Today’s operating systems like Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich rely heavily on the GPU since the interface and all the animations are rendered on the graphics chip, which is how you’re able to get the buttery smooth transition effects. It also comes in handy when watching HD videos. Just like its PC component, a graphics chip essentially has more cores than a CPU thereby allowing it distribute the load better and leaving the CPU free for other tasks. Take Nvidia’s Tegra 3 for instance, this SoC packs in 12 GPU cores. Below are some of the most popular vendors for GPUs.
HD gaming is here to stay
Mali is a series of GPUs produced by ARM. Unlike other GPUs though, the Mali chip doesn’t actually have any display controller built-in to dive the LCD panel. Instead, it’s just a pure 3D engine that does the job of rendering graphics into memory. The most popular chip is the Mali-400 MP, a quad-core GPU that’s used in plenty of SoCs like Samsung’s Exynos and ST-Ericsson’s NovaThor.
Previously known as Imageon, ATI developed this line of media processors back in 2002 for handheld and mobile devices. It later came to be known as AMD Imageon when AMD bought ATI in late 2006. After some company restructuring, AMD officially discontinued this line of mobile media chips in 2008 only to be bought by Qualcomm later that year for $64 million. After Qualcomm stepped in, they changed the branding to Adreno since AMD retained the Imageon title. Adreno has since been used in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoCs, their most popular ones being the Adreno 205, Adreno 220 and the most recent, Adreno 225.
PowerVR is a division of Imagination Technologies that started out making graphics solutions for desktop PC market but over the years, dropped out and have since been making low powered media chips for mobile devices. PowerVR GPUs aren’t manufactured by PowerVR themselves but instead, they licence their design and patents to other companies like Texas Instruments, Intel, Samsung, Apple, etc. Their PowerVR SGX series have been quite popular and featured in many prime-time commercial products.
The famous Tegra 3 SoC
The name Geforce is synonymous with graphics cards ever since they introduced it, way back in 1999. NVidia developed these graphics chips in-house and till now, only feature in their own Tegra SoC. Their latest Tegra 3 SoC ups the ante by offering a 12-core GPU making it roughly three times more powerful than its predecessor.
Putting it all together
So we’ve talked about what SoCs actually are and the different CPUs and GPUs that are out there in the market. Now, it’s time to put it all together and look at some of the popular SoCs in the market along with their accompanying phones. This is a massive list so to make sense out of it all; we’ve only listed the most common chipsets used in phones that are relevant to us. You’ll want to click the image below to get a better look.
A quick comparision of the popular chipsets in the market
Now that you know which SoC sits in your phone, it’s time to take a look at where it stands amongst the competition. For this, we turn to AnTuTu, a very popular benchmarking program for Android handsets that gives you a rough idea of how powerful a smartphone is. This is just a synthetic benchmark though but like PCMark Vantage for the PC, it gives you a fair idea of where your handset stands. Not all phones are created equal so there is a very good chance that your model will have a slightly different score, whcih is perfectly normal.
A rough idea of where these devices stand in terms of performance
The bottom line
We really hope that this article cleared out most of the doubts and questions you’ve had about mobile chipsets. Companies will often try and market their SoCs with fancy names and slogans but it's important to look past that when you’re making your buying decision. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell the exact details of which CPU or GPU is used in the SoC directly from the box since they don’t mention it usually so the only way to check is to do a little digging online. We’ve also seen from AnTuTu and our SoC chart that not all 1GHz phones are created equal. While they may look the same on the face of it, one could have a faster GPU, thereby giving you better multimedia performance. We keep saying this time and time again but do a little homework before heading out to the shops with your shopping list; it goes a long way in getting the best for your money.