Are smartphones more powerful than computers?

Smartphone CPU in comparison: Here are the differences

Andreas Hitzig

Current mid-range and top smartphones can now take on many of the tasks of a PC. A major reason for this are the powerful processors, which, however, still lead a shadowy existence. We give an overview of current CPUs.

EnlargeSmartphone CPU in comparison: Here are the differences

Very few users know which manufacturer the CPU in their smartphone is from and what level of performance it has. The processor of the smartphone is at least as important as the counterpart in your PC or notebook. If you ask PC or notebook owners, they can usually tell you whether Intel or AMD processors are installed in their devices and which processor types are involved.

With this article we want to arouse your interest in smartphone CPUs. You will learn more about the different types of processors that can be found in current smartphones and their areas of application.

Manufacturer information: What the individual values ​​mean

If you look at the description of a current smartphone like the Samsung S10, you will find several pieces of information for the processor: manufacturer, processor type, number of processor cores and the CPU speed. The top model from South Korea has an in-house Exynos 9820 processor with eight cores and a clock rate of 2.7 GHz.

A processor core is a complete unit with arithmetic and control unit, which is supplemented by further components such as the cache memory and the memory management unit (MMU). If there are several cores in a smartphone processor, they are stacked on top of one another. Two cores are called dual-core, and a stack with four cores is called a quad-core. The current models have eight cores and are also called octacores.

EnlargeThe current top model from Samsung, the Galaxy S10, has an Exynos 9820 processor with eight cores and a clock rate of 2.7 GHz.

In this context, the clock rate indicates the frequency with which the cores process the tasks. Eight cores can process up to eight work steps at the same time, provided they are controlled by the operating system or the app. The Hertz number of the processor indicates how long a clock period is, i.e. the time that is required to carry out a work step. With one gigahertz the clock period is one nanosecond, with eight cores this can be eight commands per nanosecond with optimal parallelization.

The clock rate of the smartphone processors in current top models is between two and three gigahertz. A higher clock rate is currently not implemented for two main reasons: On the one hand, the power consumption is too high and thus reduces the battery life. No less important, however, is the temperature development, which increases accordingly at higher clock rates. In the worst case, this can damage the smartphone.

As you can see from the overviews below, manufacturers are now also mixing the clock frequencies of the cores: higher clock speeds for more computationally intensive tasks, lower ones for simpler jobs. This mix allows you to achieve the best possible result and also save valuable battery power.

The number of cores and the clock frequency of the CPU are important performance parameters of a smartphone, but in the end they say little about how quickly the smartphone actually processes certain tasks. A number of other components within your smartphone have an important influence on this. The most reliable way to determine the overall performance is to use a benchmark. You will learn more about this later in this article.

Reading tip:The best Android smartphones in the test

More than a CPU: System-on-a-Chip architecture

EnlargeQualcomm offers not just a chip, but a complete system for a smartphone. This consists of various processors, but also of additional functions such as WLAN and Bluetooth.

The three leading manufacturers Huawei, Samsung and Qualcomm not only produce the pure processors, but a so-called one-chip system or system-on-a-chip (SoC). In addition to the CPU, such a system also includes a graphics processor (GPU - Graphics Processing Unit), an LTE modem, a multimedia processor, a signal processor, security functions, an accelerator for artificial intelligence (AI) and often also components that support Bluetooth and Contribute WLAN functions. The manufacturer Qualcomm therefore speaks of a mobile platform. For this reason, the data sheet of its fastest 855+ platform also requires a DIN A4 page to describe all functions.

EnlargeEspecially with graphics-heavy and fast games - in the picture Call of Duty - it is essential to have a GPU in addition to the processor that carries out the 3D calculations.

The specification shows exactly which components are included in such a system. Of course, it is more interesting which tasks each individual component takes on: In addition to the CPU, which performs the central computing operations of your smartphone, modern SoCs have a GPU as another important processor. This supports the CPU in the high-performance display of high-resolution images and animations. Due to the ever larger resolutions supported by smartphones and tablets, the CPU is reaching its limits in this task. This is why the GPU is used here, which relieves the load on the CPU and therefore usually also leads to lower energy consumption. The GPU also calculates 3D data for the image output and displays it on the smartphone or tablet display by means of a controller. The main purposes are therefore games, augmented reality and virtual reality applications.

EnlargeCurrent SoCs such as the Kirin 990 from Huawei have a CPU and GPU as well as a processor for artificial intelligence that, for example, optimizes image recognition without contact with the cloud.

In addition to the CPU and GPU, the current SoCs often also contain processors for AI applications. The apps that are used on smartphones today and use AI always require an internet connection and a corresponding cloud application in the background. This starts with voice and image recognition, goes through personal assistants such as Alexa and the Google Assistant, and ends with security functions.