On September 7th, Samsung has announced their latest system-on-chip (SoC) for smartphones. Code named 'Orion', this is the successor to the successful (and powerful) Hummingbird SoC. As it was the case with Hummingbird, Samsung continues to use 45nm manufacturing technology. This time around, two Cortex A9 cores have been implemented, each running at 1GHz. Hummingbird uses a single Cortex A8 core.
What makes ARM Cortex A9 design so special?
ARM currently has 3 different designs for the market - ARM11 (slow), Cortex A8 (fast), Cortex A9 (very fast!). ARM11 is used by today's low end smartphones while 99% of the high-end smartphones use Cortex A8.
Cortex A8 exceeds ARM11 by implementing much more effective cache design. Cortex A8 introduces a deeper pipeline with more accurate branch predictions. Cortex A8 also implements better performing media processing instructions. All this brings about 40% improvement over ARM11 design at the same clock speed. And Cortex A8, although consumes more power when working at peak levels, manages idle time more effectively to save power overall.
Cortex A9 is the first ARM design to implement out-of-order execution. Until about early 90's, all CPUs were in-order processors. The key concept of out-of-order processing is to allow processor to avoid "stalls" that could occur when data needed to perform an operation is not available. Instead of stalling, the processor fills in these slots with other instructions that CAN be executed. Although sounds simple in plain English, this is very complex to implement on silicons.
Cortex A9 also features a shorter pipeline which helps complete instructions faster than Cortex A8. Cortex A9 is expected to feature significantly better IPC (instructions per clock) than Cortex A8 - about 25% improvement. And on top of this, Cortex A9 is known to clock well - up to 2GHz. So by combining higher IPC, dual cores and higher clock speed, Cortex A9 based smartphones are expected to significantly outperform Cortex A8 based smartphones.
Here are the phones you will find today that uses respective ARM designs:
- ARM 11: iPhone 3, HTC G1, Magic, Hero, etc.
- ARM Cortex A8: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, Nexus One, Motorola Droid, Droid X, Droid 2, Samsung Galaxy S, HTC Evo, HTC Desire, Desire HD, etc.
- ARM Cortex A9: None yet.
Although Samsung has not announced which GPU design it will be based on, Samsung is claiming that Orion's GPU will be up to 5 times faster than the GPU found in Hummingbird (PowerVR SGX 540). Note that PowerVR SGX540 is already the most powerful GPU used by any smartphones to date. It will take miracles for Samsung to come up with yet another design that is 5 times more powerful!
This is just a speculation, but MAY BE, Samsung is planning to use PowerVR SGX543MP, again licensed from Imagination Technologies. PowerVR SGX543MP is being delivered to customers in SGXMP2 (two-core) to SGXMP16 (16-core) variants. At 200MHz core frequency an SGX543MP4 (four cores) will deliver 133 million polygons per second and fill rates in excess of 4Gpixels/sec, according to Imagination Technologies website. (At 400MHz core frequency an SGX543MP8 (eight cores) will deliver 532 million polygons per second and fill rates in excess of 16Gpixels/sec!!). In comparison, Hummingbird's PowerVR SGX 540 manages about 90 million polygons per second.
(Updated Sep 23, 2010): Confirmed - the graphics unit in Orion is based on the "Mali" design from ARM. By combining both CPU and GPU cores, they have found ways to further optimize the performance of the GPU processor.
Expected power consumption
Peak power consumption of Orion should be greater than that of Hummingbird (understandably since there are twice as many cores but both uses 45nm manufacturing technology), but the average power consumption may be lower, thanks to the performance improvement which allows Orion to complete tasks faster to allow longer idle periods.
Qualcomm - their future flagship product - QSD8672, is a dual core processor based on Cortex A9 design. Smartphones using this processor are expected to make it to the market around Q3 of 2011 at the earliest. This processor will use Adreno 220 GPU, which will be significantly outperformed by Orion if Samsung's claim of 5x the performance improvement over Hummingbird is true. Although Adreno 220's theoretical poly rate is slightly lower than Hummingbird's at 80 million polys/sec, it might come out slightly faster in real life, based on the observed performance of Adreno 205.
Texas Instrument - TI has already announced their Cortex A9 version, called OMAP4 series. TI will start shipping OMAP4 during Q4 of 2010, and devices using OMAP4 is expected to appear during Q2 of 2011. Although its CPU core will be competitive (essentially the same core as both Samsung's and Qualcomm's), its GPU will be based on PowerVR SGX540 which has been used by Samsung already as part of Hummingbird SoC. Obviously, TI is one generation behind on this respect.
NVIDIA - they went from ARM11 (Tegra 1) to Cortex A9 (Tegra 2), skipping Cortex A8 design altogether. Tegra 2's CPU core will be competitive but its GPU appears to be weaker than even PowerVR SGX540. Heck, even Qualcomm's Adreno 205 may outperform this GPU. On the plus side, Tegra 2 is already available on the market NOW, and smartphones based on Tegra 2 will appear during Q4 of 2010. (Read this article for more details on Tegra 2). Samsung, LG and Motorola have announced their intention of producing phones based on Tegra 2 so far.