Smartphone SoCs explained: A comprehensive guide

Smartphone SoCs explained: A comprehensive guide

As ubiquitous as they have become, there is no denying that the modern smartphone is a technological marvel. The sheer number of things you can do with that (relatively) tiny gadget that snugly fits into your trouser pocket would have been something straight of science fiction if you were living in the 70s. While it is an amalgamation of many technologies, at the centre of every smartphone is the one thing that makes it all happen: The SoC. The purpose of this article is to give you a basic idea of what a modern smartphone SoC does and what the current state of the smartphone SoC space is. The eventual purpose is to help you, the consumer, use this information (along with others) to help you choose your next smartphone.

The aim here is not to dig deep into how a modern smartphone SoC works or to satiate the curiosity of an already knowledgeable smartphone buff. Instead, we aim to empower you, the average smartphone buyer, with as much information possible to help you home on a smartphone that is just right for your use. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the idea is to help you know just enough stuff, so you end up making an informed purchase. 

This hub article will link to several other individual smartphone SoC-related articles where we will compare, talk and discuss specific models in detail.

Contents

Are processors, SoCs and chipsets the same thing?

Experienced smartphone buffs usually scoff at the word ‘processor’ and will tell you that an SoC (short for System on a Chip) or ‘chipset’ is a more accurate term. At the end of the day, all you need to know is that the ‘processor, ‘SoC’, and ‘chipset’ on a smartphone (in most cases) refer to the same entity – even though the terminology might not be entirely accurate.

The term processor was generally used to denote the Central Processing Unit used on desktop computers. Modern SoCs also get a CPU/processor – but it is just one of the many components that make up an SoC. So the answer you are looking for is this: While an SoC and processor are not the same things in concrete terms, over time, it has become an acceptable thing to call an SoC a processor or a chipset. I know this can be frustratingly confusing. 

If it’s not the same as a processor, What really is an SoC?

The most common answer you might have heard often equates the SoC with the human brain. I disagree. A more accurate way to understand what an SoC is to think of it not as the brain – but as the human head. Yes, you read that right. I know this example is funny, but it is just simpler to visualise your head as the SoC - and your brain (which is located within the head) - as the processor. Just like your head integrates many other parts, the SoC, too, contains various components. Many of these components also help take the load off the processor and helps it perform more efficiently.

Take a look at the diagram below to visualise all the components that make up a modern SoC.

snapdragon 888 block diagram
The components inside a modern SoC. We have used the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 as an example / © Qualcomm

You can also think of the SoC as the most critical part of a modern smartphone. It effectively functions as a single unit and is responsible for handling almost every single task you ask your phone to perform. Be it something relatively mundane as making and receiving calls to something inherently more complex, like using the phone camera to click pictures and videos, then edit and render a final product using an editing app.

What is ARM architecture?

Another name that you might have typically heard while talking about smartphone SoCs is ARM. What you need to know is that ARM is a British company that owns the license to the ARM architecture, instruction set and CPU core design that is used by all companies that make SoCs.

No matter what smartphone brand you buy, and immaterial of the SoC it uses, it is a given that it is based on the ARM architecture.

You will hear a lot about ARM when you read smartphone launch articles – especially when you get to the part where the SoC specs are mentioned. For example, these articles will highlight what kind of ARM Cortex Cores a specific SoC uses. 

ARM Logo
All modern smartphones and based on the ARM architecture/ © ARM

 

Bonus Info: It is also interesting to know that major SoC-makers like Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Huawei and Unisoc do not actually manufacture SoCs in their own plants. Instead, they outsource this job to specialised semiconductor manufacturing companies like TSMC, Globalfoundries, and SMIC. Samsung is the only smartphone SoC maker in this above list that has the capability to design its own ARM-based SoCs and also manufacture them in-house.

What components does an SoC contain?

A typical modern smartphone SoC typically integrates the following components.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The single most important component of the modern smartphone, the CPU, is the actual brains behind your smartphone. A modern smartphone CPU typically has several cores, and its performance is measured in GigaHertz (GHz). When we tech reviewers talk about smartphone performance, we will often use terms like ‘Cortex-A77’ or ‘Cortex-A53’. These are the names of the actual CPU core that nestle within the SoC. We will learn about smartphone cores and processors in a separate article.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
While the CPU can handle several tasks, it is not specifically designed to handle graphics. Since most smartphones of today need to process highly demanding games (and video content), this task is handled by a dedicated GPU. You will hear a lot about GPUs in smartphone reviews. Qualcomm SoCs typically use their own Adreno branded GPUs, while other SoC makers get by with either ARM Mali or PowerVR GPUs.

Image Processing Unit (ISP)
Modern smartphones usually have a separate image processing unit. This essentially allows them to ‘convert’ data from an image sensor to a usable photo that you can then edit and share with friends and relatives. In the past, the CPU used to handle this task as well. But manufacturers soon realised it is always a better idea to offload these tasks to a separate Image Processing Unit. Names you shall come across when discussing ISPs include ‘Spectra’ from Qualcomm and Imagiq from MediaTek.

Integrated Modems
Modern smartphones are communication devices, and a modem is the single most essential component that enables this basic feature. A modem is used to convert wireless signals into data that your phone can understand. Today’s smartphone modems integrate 5G, 4G, 3G, Wi-Fi and capabilities in a single unit. And while a majority of smartphone SoCs today feature an integrated modem, there are a few exceptions. 

Recent examples include the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and Apple A14 Bionic, which use the same external modem – the Snapdragon X55. By 'external' we mean that the modem unit is not part of the SoC. Another example of this is the Exynos 990 from Samsung, which also uses an external modem.

SoC Modem
The Snapdragon X55 modem is used on the iPhone 12 series and on Qualcomm's own Snapdragon 865 SoC/ © Qualcomm

Not all SoC brands are keen on naming their modems. Qualcomm is a notable exception and the company usually denotes its modems with the letter X, followed by a number. The newest 5G modem from them, for example, is the Qualcomm Snapdragon X60.  

MediaTek, HiSilicon and Samsung don’t usually mention the modem 'brand names" on their spec sheets and have generally shied away from naming them. Recently, however, MediaTek did make a big deal when it announced its first 5G compatible modem and branded it as the MediaTek M70 5G modem. HiSilicon modems go by the 'Balong' brand name. However, you will rarely find this name used even on the official websites. 

Other components
While these four are essential components, the modern SoC also integrates other parts. For example, Digital Signal Processors (DSP) are typically used to handle tasks like analysing data from onboard sensors and sometimes even help with music playback. With artificial intelligence and machine learning being touted as the next big thing, it is not uncommon for smartphone SoCs to integrate a dedicated Neural Processing Unit (NPU) custom-built for handling such tasks.

Additional things to know

Manufacturing Process
A phrase that you will often come across while reading SoC specs is something known as ‘manufacturing process.’ It is listed in nanometers (nm). The simplest explanation I can think of right now is to tell you that a manufacturing process is a number used to understand how small the SoC’s internal nodes are. 

While we can have a scholarly dissertation about manufacturing processes and the semiconductor fabrication process, that is way beyond the scope of this article. What you as a consumer need to understand is that the smaller the manufacturing process, the more complex/expensive/power efficient the SoC is.

Current flagship SoCs are based on a 5nm manufacturing process, while flagship SoCs from 2020 was based on a 7nm node. Mid-range and budget SoCs are typically based on 10nm, 11nm to 12nm, 14nm and 28nm manufacturing processes.

Who makes smartphone SoCs?

The major players in the smartphone SoC segment include the following companies.

  • Apple
  • Qualcomm
  • MediaTek
  • Samsung
  • HiSilicon
  • Unisoc

Here’s a brief overview of products from each of these SoC brands

Apple SoCs

Since Apple does not need its SoCs to use on several devices, it typically announces just one smartphone SoC every year.  Until 2010, Apple relied on Samsung-sourced SoCs for the iPhone and iPad models. Since then, however, the company moved to its own ARM-based SoCs. The first Apple-designed SoC was the Apple A4 which debuted in 2010.

A decade on, the newest smartphone SoC from Apple is called the Apple A14 Bionic which is used on the iPhone 12 series. It is widely thought to be the most powerful SoC currently available for any smartphone.

IMG 20201119 124621
Apple uses its own custom ARM-based SoCs for iPhones, iPads and even the MacBook lineup / © NextPit

Previous generation A-series SoCs from Apple were also considered to be the fastest in its class. Apple uses the A-series SoC on its iPad lineup as well. More recently, the company launched its MacBook line up that also comes powered by a modified version of the A14 Bionic SoC, which is marketed as the Apple M1 SoC.

Qualcomm SoCs

An American company, Qualcomm, is perhaps the most widely known smartphone SoC company. It’s smartphone SoCs are sold under the Snapdragon brand. Qualcomm designs and sells a wide variety of SoCs ranging from entry-level and mid-range to high-end SoCs and is perhaps the most widely known brand in this segment. 

Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 series
The 800 series SoCs from Qualcomm has long held the title of being the most powerful chipsets available for Android smartphones. These chipsets are typically used on high-end Android smartphones. As of 2021, the top of the line flagship SoC from Qualcomm is the Snapdragon 888. It's predecessors include the Snapdragon 865+ and Snapdragon 865 from 2020, and the  Snapdragon 855+ and Snapdragon 855 from 2019. Qualcomm also recently announced a Qualcomm 870 SoC which is positioned between last year's 865 series and this year's flagship 888 chipset.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 700 series
As you might have guessed by now, SoCs from Qualcomm's 700 series are positioned one rung below the more powerful 800 series chips and are typically used on upper mid-range smartphones. While not as powerful as their 800 series counterparts, the 7 series have almost equivalent features and only make small compromises either on the processing speed and graphics departments. Some examples of SoCs from the Snapdragon 700 series include the Snapdragon 765G, Snapdragon 732G, and the Snapdragon 720G.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 series
Among the most popular smartphone SoCs, you will find Snapdragon 600 series chipsets on popular budget smartphones that typically offer a lot of features for very little money. While these SoCs are not nearly as powerful as their 700 and 800 series brethren, most 600 series SoCs are quite capable of handling all tasks that an average smartphone user would throw at them. These SoCs feature adequately powerful GPUs that lets users play the most graphically intensive games as well without breaking too much sweat.  The Snapdragon 675G, Snapdragon 670, and Snapdragon 665 are some SoCs from this lineup.

Snapdragon 400 series
As you might have guessed by now, Snapdragon 4 series SoCs are typically used on smartphones that go for very low prices. While these SoCs can handle most daily tasks, they are not designed for resource-intensive tasks like multitasking or playing games. The Snapdragon 400 series includes the Snapdragon 460, Snapdragon 450, and Snapdragon 439 SoCs.

Snapdragon 200 series
Positioned even below the budget 400 series chipsets, smartphones that use these very basic SoCs are usually sold in emerging markets. Most consumers who end up buying devices that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 200 series phones typically do not have the income to spend on more expensive devices. Another key trait with the owners of these phones is that almost all of them have recently upgraded from basic feature phones.
Examples: Snapdragon 215, Snapdragon 212, Snapdragon 205

Apart from these smartphone oriented SoCs, Qualcomm also makes SoCs for smartwatches under its Wear Platform.

MediaTek SoCs

Originally known for its affordable SoCs that were typically used on cheaper smartphones, MediaTek is a Taiwanese company that designs smartphone SoCs. Of late, however, they have managed to pose a significant threat to Qualcomm’s domination in the segment thanks to its competitive entry-level and mid-range products. MediaTek is also inching closer to Qualcomm with their new high-end chipsets. MediaTek uses several brand names for its SoCs. The popular ones include the Helio and Dimensity lineup.

MediaTek Dimensity 5G
The Dimensity series from MediaTek is the Taiwanese company’s 5G centric smartphone SoC series. Unlike the Qualcomm 800 series, which is targeted only at flagship and affordable flagship products, MediaTek’s Dimensity lineup includes both flagship-grade, mid-range and budget SoCs.

Dimensity 1200
The MediaTek Dimensity 1200 is a flagship-grade SoC/ © MediaTek

The Dimensity 1200, for example, is the company’s newest, fastest SoC to date and was announced in early 2021. But the Dimensity series also includes the mid-range Dimensity 800 lineup and the even cheaper Dimensity 700 SoCs.

MediaTek Helio G
The Helio G series from MediaTek are gaming-focused chipsets that typically cater to the entry-level and budget gaming audience. The Helio G lineup includes individual SoC models like the entry-level Helio G25 to the relatively powerful Helio G95. 

MediaTek Helio P
The Helio P series is a popular line of budget SoCs from MediaTek. Before the G series came into vogue, the P series formed a key part of MediaTek’s budget portfolio. Many of the SoCs from the P series is near-identical to their cousins from the G series, with the only differences being the latter getting slightly better GPU. Products from this lineup include the Helio P95, P90, and P70 in the top end, Helio P60 and P65 in the mid-range and Helio P20 series (P20, P22, P25) in the entry-level segment.

MediaTek Helio A
This is an entry-level lineup of SoCs that are almost always found on low-end Android smartphones - typically from Tier 2 and Tier 3 manufacturers that mostly concentrate on emerging markets. SoCs from MediaTek’s A series includes the Helio A20, A22, and A25.

MediTek also had a Helio X series. However, this lineup hasn’t seen a new product since 2017 and is dead for all practical purposes. Going forward, MediaTek is likely to only concentrate on the four product lines we have mentioned above.

Samsung Exynos SoCs

Samsung is a South Korean conglomerate that has several business units. It also has a semiconductor unit that designs its own lineup of smartphone SoCs branded as Exynos. While Exynos SoCs are typically used on its own smartphones, there have been several instances in which Samsung has sold Exynos processors to other manufacturers. Identifying Samsung Exynos SoCs is a bit of a task, thanks to the company’s confusing naming scheme.

Flagship Exynos SoCs
Until 2020, the flagship lineup from Exynos was typically part of its 9 series. But then, the company also makes a few budget SoCs that began with the same digit, and that could lead to confusion. 

Anyway, in late 2020, Samsung announced a new high-end SoC – the Exynos 1080, which was also its 5nm SoC. The Exynos 1080 is not a full-fledged flagship SoC and is likely to be used on affordable flagship devices in 2021. A few months after the announcement of the Exynos 1080, Samsung came up with the powerful Exynos 2100, which is currently its top tier flagship SoC.

Exynos 2100
The Exynos 2100 is the flagship SoC from Samsung for 2021/ © Samsung

This SoC is already used on the European and (some) Asian variants of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series. Previous Exynos flagship SoCs include the Exynos 900 series (2020), Exynos 9800 series (2018/19), and Exynos 8800 series (2016/17)

Entry Level and Mid Range Exynos SoCs
As of 2021, Samsung’s mid-range SoC lineup includes the Exynos 9600 series from 2019 that includes SoCs like the Exynos 9609, 9610, and 9611. These SoCs - the 9611  in particular- is widely used on the company’s budget handsets. Then there is the Exynos 7000 series which is positioned below the 9000 series and is typically used on entry-level phones. The SoCs from this lineup includes the Exynos 7885 and the Exynos 7904. To make things confusing, Samsung also has an Exynos 800 series which currently includes two entry-level SoCs - the Exynos 850 - which is a low-end SoC and the more powerful Exynos 880, which is targeted at sub-250 Euro smartphones.  

HiSilicon (Huawei) SoCs

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is another brand that has its own lineup of smartphone SoCs. It is manufactured by a subsidiary company called HiSilicon, and its smartphone SoCs are marketed under the ‘Kirin’ brand.

Like Samsung, Huawei mostly limits its Kirin branded SoCs to their own devices. The companies (now sold) sub-brand Honor was also known to use Kirin SoCs. Huawei’s SoC business, however, is facing a lot of trouble because of the ongoing US-China trade war. Following recent issues with the US government, HiSilicon confirmed that it has stopped making Kirin SoCs. The future of Kirin SoCs, at the time of publishing this, hangs in the balance. Here’s a look at Kirin’s recent SoC lineup anyway.

Kirin 900 and 9000 series
The current flagship SoCs from HiSilicon belong to the Kirin 9000 series and include two SoCs - the Kirin 9000 and the 9000E. Their 2020 flagship SoCs included SoCs from the Kirin 990 lineup and included the Kirin 990, Kirin 990 5G, and the Kirin 990E 5G. If you go back in time, Huawei’s older flagship used the Kirin 970, Kirin 960 and Kirin 950 SoCs. 

huawei kirin 9000
The Kirin 9000 is the latest from Huawei. But its future is in trouble © HiSilicon

Kirin 800 series
The Kirin 800 series is positioned just below the flagship 900 series SoCs and are designed to be used on Huawei’s affordable flagship and upper mid-range handsets. The newest product from this lineup is the Kitin 820E 5G and its sibling, the Kirin 8205G.

Kirin 700 and Kirin 600 series
Huawei extensively used SoCs from the Kirin 700 and 600 series on its budget handsets. These SoCs are designed to compete against Qualcomm’s 600 and 700 series SoCs. However, this lineup hasn’t seen much in terms of new developments since 2017-18, and the last SoC to be announced from this lineup was the Kirin 710 lineup in 2018. The Kirin 6 series last saw an update in 2017 with the Kirin 659 SoC.

Unisoc SoCs (Previously Spreadtrum)

Unisoc is yet another smartphone SoC brand. While not as famous as the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung or Huawei, Unisoc does have a comprehensive set of smartphone focussed SoCs. They are mostly used by manufacturers who concentrate on manufacturing devices targeted at the lower end of the price spectrum.

unisoc
Unisoc is not too well-known in the west. But it is an emerging player in the SoC segment / © Unisoc

The company did recently announce a powerful 5G enabled SoC called the Unisoc Tiger T7520 SoC, which is based on a 6nm manufacturing process. The only other 5G ready SoC from the company is the older Unisoc T7510 SoC which is a budget 5G SoC launched in mid-2020. Unisoc does have a wide portfolio of 4G ready SoCs that include the likes of the T710, T618, and T610 SoCs.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what a smartphone SoC is and what the companies that operate in this space are, you can use this information to better understand the hardware specifications of your phone. This is just the first article in a planned series of smartphone SoC-related topics here on NextPit. We will update this article with more links around related topics in the near future

Watch this space for more!

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