System-on-Chips

Android devices are based around a number of components and one of these is the system-on-chip, also known as the SoC or chipset. The chipset contains the processing brains of the device and includes the application cores, graphics processing and networking chips. It is usually installed on the device circuit board adjacent or under the memory module, and it’s one of the most important components of the device. Without the chipset, the device cannot function.

There are many chipset designers and manufacturers with the three big names, Qualcomm, MediaTek and Samsung, gaining the most recognition. However, there are many other chipset designers such as AllWinner, HiSilicon, Intel, NVIDIA, Rockchip and Spreadthrum.

Many of these chipsets used reference designs licensed from ARM Holdings, the British company now owned by Japanese carrier SoftBank. However, Qualcomm and Samsung have designed their own custom application cores using technology licensed from ARM.

Processing Cores

Today’s chipsets typically contain several computing cores, such as application cores, graphics processing cores, and sensor cores. A core is the term given to a computing element designed to process information, and an application core is the term given to the general processor core. It’s close to the equivalent of the CPU, or central processor unit, in a desktop computer.

32-bit And 64-bit

Android manufacturers started using 64-bit chipsets in 2015 with the introduction of the ARM Cortex-A53 and the Cortex-A57. ARM Holdings have since introduced follow up designs offering improved performance and reduced power consumption, and in 2017 there are still 32-bit chipsets still in use. The number of bits that a chipset uses refers to the address bandwidth: a 32-bit chipset is limited to being able to access 4 GB of RAM whereas a 64-bit chipset can access considerably more.

big.LITTLE Architecture

Android has supported multi-core chipsets since Android 2.3 Gingerbread and many chipset designers have been using a “big.LITTLE” architecture design since the introduction of 64-bit chipsets, although the technology has existed before and has been used with 32-bit chipsets. big.LITTLE is the name given to the way different application cores are used in the same chipset. Typically, a chipset designer will use a combination of low power, more efficient application cores combined with higher performance, but less efficient, application cores. The chipset will use different application cores depending on the workload.

big.LITTLE technology is effective at blending performance together with power efficiency. At low workloads, the more powerful application cores are inefficient and are disabled. However, when the workload increases, the less powerful application cores cannot keep up with the computing demand. The SoC activates the higher performance cores to process the information as quickly as possible in a “race to idle” scenario.

Most big.LITTLE chipsets can also use all application cores to maximise performance, but this rarely happens running normal applications on our devices. This is more for benchmarking purposes.

MediaTek has introduced a three tier big.LITTLE architecture, so something closer to big.medium.LITTLE! These designs are to optimise power consumption in a similar way that an auto transmission optimises engine and road speeds.