When it comes to the high-tech brains of high-end smartphones, there are only two players that really matter: Qualcomm and Apple. They make what is called a system on a chip, or SoC, which determines what the hottest new devices can do. This is why impending release of Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 810 chip is important news for anyone considering the purchase of a new smartphone.
The key questions for a smartphone buyer are: Which brain do they want? Which technology offers a more compelling experience? Does it make sense to buy an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus powered by Apple’s A8 SoC today? Or, should you wait until next year when new devices driven by the Snapdragon 810 hit the market?
The best way to answer these questions is to examine the specifications for each system side by side. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. A certain amount of the technology is shared—something the companies don’t like to talk about. Some features have fanciful names—Apple’s “Focus Pixels” comes to mind—that make straightforward comparisons difficult. To work around this, I’ll mostly focus on areas where there are third-party benchmark tests and teardowns, or we can extrapolate from existing SoCs with the assumption that the 810 builds upon their advances.
Qualcomm has been making a big deal about the fact that devices powered by the Snapdragon 810 will capture 4K footage and stream it on displays that are so crisp and clear even tiny 2 point fonts will spring to life. Thanks to integrated WiGig technology, you’ll also be able to bounce those streams to a 4K TV set wirelessly by plugging in a small dongle. (You can find similar technology in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which features a Snapdragon 800 and includes 4K playback and capture. You can find a review here comparing the Note 3 with the Canon 5D Mark III.)
You won’t find this capability on the iPhone 6 because Apple opted not to include 4K video recording. Redshark News argues the reason is that 4K recordings would have used up too much space. Users would have been forced to repeatedly remove the clips from their phones. It’s a reasonable guess in lieu of an explanation from Apple. Anyone who has filled up the memory on their PC or phone knows how frustrating that can be.
As bloggers have discovered, it is possible to playback a 4K video on a new iPhone, but is it really a 4K experience? Apple’s “new Retina HD display” tops out at the1334x750 resolution for the iPhone 6 and the 1920×1080 resolution for the iPhone 6 Plus. This is far less than either strict 4K, which is 4096×2160 (pixel width x pixel height), or ultra high definition television, which is also called 4K and has a resolution of 3840×2160.
In terms of data management, both Qualcomm and Apple support H.265 video encoding and decoding, also referred to HEVC or high efficiency video coding. With HEVC, apps like FaceTime use less data. The key benefit of HEVC is compression efficiency and support for resolutions up to 8192×4320. In other words, it delivers high quality at lower bit rates.
For still photos, Qualcomm offers dual image signal processors that can be coupled with a single, higher resolution camera for images up to 55 megapixels. The ISPs support multiple, separate cameras for continuous optical zoom and stereoscopic 3D. But to take advantage of this ability your smartphone will need additional technology. Corephotonics and Pelican Imaging are two Qualcomm-backed companies that deliver DSLR-like functionality enhanced by 3D. It’s worth noting, however, that as a chip provider, Qualcomm can only support a better camera experience, it can’t guarantee it.
Apple, on the other hand, has been able to consistently deliver better and better smartphone cameras. Last year, Apple’s purchase of PrimeSense led to speculation that the iPhone 6 would include its 3D sensing technology. Instead, Apple chose to simply upgrade the 8 megapixel camera. The decision to stick with tried-and-true technology led to stellar reviews. After a series of tests, DxO Labs, a provider of digital imaging solutions, gave the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus the highest score for a mobile phone camera, beating out by three points the reigning smartphone camera kings Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z3/Z2. (Both are examples of the quality of the image processing by Qualcomm’s current high-end SoCs.)
Another area where Qualcomm is claiming bragging rights is audio quality. The Snapdragon 800 family has been offering ultra high-definition capture and playback of 7.1 surround sound commonly used in home theaters. The new chip bumps that up to 11.1 surround sound via Dolby Atmos, while continuing to offer Qualcomm’s Fluence noise cancelation.
The iPhone 6 doesn’t offer high-resolution audio, according to tests by Mashable. But after looking at teardown analyses, reporter Pete Pachal concludes that’s probably a software limitation and not a result of the chips Apple has chosen. (The digital-to-analog converter used in the iPhone 6 was custom built by Cirrus Logic for Apple.) Indeed, a benchmarking test of the iPhone 6’s audio by AnandTech, showed the device had less distortion and a better frequency response than the HTC M8, which is powered by a Snapdragon 801 processor. Meanwhile, headphone products like Turtle Beach Earforce i60 headphones, the BeoPlay H6 and Parrot Zik offer a rich, surround sound experience for Apple products.
When Apple first introduced 64-bit processors in the fall of 2013, Qualcomm’s Chief Marketing Officer Anand Chandrasekhar scoffed that it was a marketing gimmick. Within weeks, Chandrasekhar was reassigned and Qualcomm, Intel and Samsung had announced their own 64-bit SoCs.
The major advantage of the 64-bit chips for Android devices was that they made it possible for device makers to transition to a new, updated mobile architecture, ARMv8. The improvements in ARMv8, combined with the newly released Android 5.0 Lollipop, which is optimized for 64-bit chips, promise faster, more efficient devices. The performance gains should be showcased in Snapdragon 810, an octa-core system composed of two clusters of the quad-core ARM Cortex-A57 and the quad-core Cortex-A53. But it is still early days, and Qualcomm is not yet making any claims.
Despite being 64-bit compatible, Apple’s A8 SoC is dual core, runs at 1.5 GHz and is supported by relatively puny amounts of memory — just 1 GB of RAM. But in AnandTech’s benchmarking tests, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus trounced quad-core and octa-core rivals with higher clock speeds and more RAM. “While the quad-core competitors win most multi-threaded benchmarks, the Apple A8 offers superior single-threaded performance, which is arguably more relevant for most everyday tasks like browsing,” noted NotebookCheck. “Overall, the A8 is one of the fastest smartphone SoCs as of last 2014.”
Another selling point for the Snapdragon 810 chipset is a souped up GPU. The company claims the new Adreno 430 GPU consumes 20 percent less power while being 30 percent faster. This should boost graphics quality on mobile games, bringing them closer to the holy grail of a console-quality gaming experience.
In Apple’s September iPhone announcement, it made similar claims that the GPU of the new iPhone 6 is 50 percent faster than the iPhone 5s. A mobile game company, Super Evil Megacorp, took the stage to show off the graphics that result from the PowerVR GX6450 GPU from Imagination Technologies. Independent benchmark tests of the GPU showed it had improved, though perhaps not as much as Apple claimed. AnandTech concluded that the results varied from 15 to 50 percent, depending on the test, while NotebookCheck asserted that the PowerVR GPI matched the Adreno 420.
The problem with differentiating a SoC around performance is that incremental improvements can be hard to discern in every day use. The average consumer is much more likely to base a purchase decision on features he or she can personally experience, like improved battery life or faster charging.
In fact, both Qualcomm and Apple are constantly working to improve battery life by optimizing each chip in their SoCs and how they interact within their respective systems. While the batteries these systems support still leave a lot to be desired, benchmark tests show the companies are in a tight race. In AnandTech’s tests, the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 with a 1.6 GHz Snapdragon 400 SoC and 3,900 mAh battery repeatedly topped the charts. The iPhone 6 Plus, with a 2915 mAh battery took a second place for web browsing, while the iPhone 6, with a much smaller 1810 mAh battery did surprisingly well at fourth place. The results were confirmed by other reviewers.
The lack of a huge difference in battery performance between Qualcomm and Apple-powered phones isn’t surprising considering the tech they share. According to iFixit’s teardowns, both the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus use Qualcomm’s QFE 1000 Envelope Tracking IC, which is designed to reduce heat dissipation by 30 percent and decrease power consumption by 20 percent. In addition, Apple uses Qualcomm’s MDM9625M LTE Modem, the WTR1625L RF Transceiver and its companion chip, the WFR1620, as well as PM8019, a power management chip.
Since the debut of Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology, faster charging has become a staple of smartphone marketing. The Motorola Droid Turbo, which was released just six weeks ago, is built around the Snapdragon 805. One of its main selling points is its 48-hour battery life and the ability to boost that by an additional eight hours in just 15 minutes of charge. (Caveats, of course, included.)
Apple didn’t announce new quick charging technology iPhone 6, but it turns out to be possible with a simple hack. In the wake of the September release, bloggers discovered they could charge the batteries of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus twice as fast by plugging it into a 12 Watt iPad charger.
One feature that the Snapdragon 810 will have that Apple will not be able to match is wireless charging. New devices based on the Snapdragon 810 will be able to recharge simply by being placed in proximity to a compatible receiver.
The bottom line is that any comparison of smartphone technology needs to take continuous improvement for granted. This is why Apple can honestly say that every new iPhone is the best iPhone ever. It’s also why the new Androids based on the Snapdragon 810 are unlikely to disappoint. With every generation the brains behind our smartphones, whether they are designed by Apple or Qualcomm, are becoming more powerful, more efficient and more capable.