ARM told us to expect some of the first 64-bit ARMv8 based SoCs to ship in 2014, and it looks like we're seeing just that. Today Qualcomm is officially announcing its first 64-bit SoC: the Snapdragon 410 (MSM8916). 

Given that there's no 64-bit Android available at this point, most of the pressure to go to 64-bit in the Android space is actually being driven by the OEMs who view 64-bit support as a necessary checkbox feature at this point thanks to Apple's move with the A7. Combine that with the fact that the most ready 64-bit IP from ARM is the Cortex A53 (successor to the Cortex A5/A7 line), and all of the sudden it makes sense why Qualcomm's first 64-bit mobile SoC is aimed at the mainstream market (Snapdragon 400 instead of 600/800).

I'll get to explaining ARM's Cortex A53 in a moment, but first let's look at the specs of the SoC:

Qualcomm Snapdragon 410
Internal Model Number MSM8916
Manufacturing Process 28nm LP
CPU 4 x ARM Cortex A53 1.2GHz+
GPU Qualcomm Adreno 306
Memory Interface 1 x 64-bit LPDDR2/3
Integrated Modem 9x25 core, LTE Category 4, DC-HSPA+

At a high level we're talking about four ARM Cortex A53 cores, likely running around 1.2 - 1.4GHz. Having four cores still seems like a requirement for OEMs in many emerging markets unfortunately, although I'd personally much rather see two higher clocked A53s. Qualcomm said the following about 64-bit in its 410 press-release:

"The Snapdragon 410 chipset will also be the first of many 64-bit capable processors as Qualcomm Technologies helps lead the transition of the mobile ecosystem to 64-bit processing.”

Keep in mind that Qualcomm presently uses a mix of ARM and custom developed cores in its lineup. The Snapdragon 400 line already includes ARM (Cortex A7) and Krait based designs, so the move to Cortex A53 in the Snapdragon 410 isn't unprecedented. It will be very interesting to see what happens in the higher-end SKUs. I don't assume that Qualcomm will want to have a split between 32 and 64-bit designs, which means we'll either see a 64-bit Krait successor this year or we'll see more designs that leverage ARM IP in the interim. 

As you'll see from my notes below however, ARM's Cortex A53 looks like a really good choice for Qualcomm. It's an extremely power efficient design that should be significantly faster than the Cortex A5/A7s we've seen Qualcomm use in this class of SoC in the past.

The Cortex A53 CPU cores are paired with an Adreno 306 GPU, a variant of the Adreno 305 used in Snapdragon 400 based SoCs (MSM8x28/8x26).

The Snapdragon 410 also features an updated ISP compared to previous 400 offerings, adding support for up to a 13MP primary camera (no word on max throughput however).

Snapdragon 410 also integrates a Qualcomm 9x25 based LTE modem block (also included in the Snapdragon 800/MSM8974), featuring support for LTE Category 4, DC-HSPA+ and the usual legacy 3G air interfaces.

All of these IP blocks sit behind a single-channel 64-bit LPDDR2/3 memory interface.

The SoC is built on a 28nm LP process and will be sampling in the first half of 2014, with devices shipping in the second half of 2014. Given its relatively aggressive schedule, the Snapdragon 410 may be one of the first (if not the first) Cortex A53 based SoCs in the market. 

A Brief Look at ARM's Cortex A53

ARM's Cortex A53 is a dual-issue in-order design, similar to the Cortex A7. Although the machine width is unchanged, the A53 is far more flexible in how instructions can be co-issued compared to the Cortex A7 (e.g. branch, data processing, load-store, & FP/NEON all dual-issue from both decode paths). 

The A53 is fully ISA compatible with the upcoming Cortex A57, making A53 the first ARMv8 LITTLE processor (for use in big.LITTLE) configurations with an A57

The overall pipeline depth hasn't changed compared to the Cortex A7. We're still dealing with an 8-stage pipeline (3-stage fetch pipeline + 5 stage decode/execute for integer or 7 for NEON/FP). The vast majority of instructions will execute in one cycle, leaving branch prediction as a big lever for increasing performance. ARM significantly increased branch prediction accuracy with the Cortex A53, so much that it was actually leveraged in the dual-issue, out-of-order Cortex A12. ARM also improved the back end a bit, improving datapath throughput. 

The result of all of this is a dual-issue design that's pushed pretty much as far as you can without going out-of-order. Below are some core-level performance numbers, all taken in AArch32 mode, comparing the Cortex A53 to its A5/A7 competitors:

Core Level Performance Comparison
All cores running at 1.2GHz DMIPS CoreMark SPECint2000
ARM Cortex A5 1920 - 350
ARM Cortex A7 2280 3840 420
ARM Cortex A9 r4p1 - - 468
ARM Cortex A53 2760 4440 600

Even ignoring any uplift from new instructions or 64-bit, the Cortex A53 is going to be substantially faster than its predecessors. I threw in hypothetical SPECint2000 numbers for a 1.2GHz Cortex A9 to put A53's performance in even better perspective. You should expect to see better performance than a Cortex A9r4 at the same frequencies, but the A9r4 is expected to hit much higher frequencies (e.g. 2.3GHz for Cortex A9 r4p1 in NVIDIA's Tegra 4i). 

ARM included a number of power efficiency improvements and is targeting 130mW single-core power consumption at 28nm HPM (running SPECint 2000). I'd expect slightly higher power consumption at 28nm LP but we're still talking about an extremely low power design.

I'm really excited to see what ARM's Cortex A53 can do. It's a potent little architecture, one that I wish we'd see taken to higher clock speeds and maybe even used in higher end devices at the same time. The most obvious fit for these cores however is something like the Moto G, which presently uses the 32-bit Cortex A7. Given Qualcomm's schedule, I wouldn't be surprised to see something like a Moto G update late next year with a Snapdragon 410 inside. Adding LTE and four Cortex A53s would really make that the value smartphone to beat.



View All Comments

  • beginner99 - Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - link

    Web page rendering isn't multi-threaded at all not even on desktop browsers. I would say most stuff on smartphones isn't. But that does not matter. Even on a desktop 2 fast cores will always be better than 4 slow ones.Howver with Intel turbo in quads that is not an issue anymore but it still is in phones (speak ARM). Reply
  • kris. - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    Lol...mediatek octa-core is nowhere Reply
  • jasonelmore - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    How far is 64 bit Android? I mean, KitKat was just released, so are we looking at a year at minimum? or will Google announce some uber dark project x64 they've been working on. Reply
  • jjj - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    Makes no sense to want higher clocks for A53 , we would be better off with 2+2 A57 and A53 or even 1+2..
    Would be nice to see some very thin devices , bellow 5mm , with 4xA53 clocked low.- ofc this one is on 28nm so we can hope for more soon when 20nm parts show up.
  • iwod - Monday, December 9, 2013 - link

    Does anyone know if Qualcomm license out their 9xx5 core to other companies for integration? Reply
  • Krysto - Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - link

    I'm with Qualcomm adopting this, as I thought they would, since they were already using A7 in S400, but this is rather embarrassing for Qualcomm.

    I mean how the hell is Qualcomm's first ARMv8 chip an ARM one?! I thought the whole point of licensing the architecture and building the core yourself was that you got to release it EARLIER than ARM themselves. I expected Nvidia to not release an ARMv8 chip in 2014, but Qualcomm seems to have handled their transition to ARMv8 just as poorly.

    In the end, this is good, though. It just means Qualcomm gets to have less monopoly, and perhaps for once Samsung will do something with their chips, and try to steal customers away from Qualcomm, by giving their chips to others. I don't know what the hell the chip business of Samsung is thinking. They had so many opportunities to push Exynos chips as competitors to Qualcomm's chips, especially since Apple wants to give up on having them make their chips, and they never took advantage of them. They even have their own fab. Heck, they aren't even using them for their own chips, let alone sell them to others. If Samsung will be the first with a 64-bit chip in 2014, this would be a good opportunity for them to start doing that.
  • darkich - Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - link

    I think that Qualcomm had a good reason to develop its own core with the Krait(Cortex A15 having problematic power efficiency), but now with the A53/A57, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see the successor of Krait core actually.

    And using stock ARM won't make them any less competitive.. Qc is the market leader in the whole SoC design, and that has always been their greatest strength. The CPU architecture is just a small part of their puzzle.
  • Kvaern - Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - link

    Because no one expected the Spanish Inquisition, or Apple sending the market into a 64 bit frenzy in 2013.

    Qualcomm no doubt has a 64 bit krait roadmap but Apple destroyed that and now they are playing catch up the best they can, and that apparently means they have to rely on an ARM design for now.
  • michael2k - Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - link

    You're expecting too much. Had Apple not released their 64 bit A7 then neither NVIDIA nor Qualcomm (or Samsung) would have been 'late'.

    You also over estimate Samsung. Samsung's initial chip designs were via Intrinsity, which Apple bought out from under them. Without that they have to rely on ARM and their own in-house talent, which has demonstrably been experiencing growing pains as they try to DIY. Likewise Apple has never 'given up on them', though they may be shopping around. Apple still purchases the bulk of their SoC from Samsung, which deprives Samsung of the capacity necessary to fulfill their own orders, much less anyone else's. In that light this is why Samsung has and continues to use third party chips like Snapdragon and Tegra... and third party fabs like TSMC!

    So relax; it doesn't matter who is second with a 64 bit chip, it only matters that you have sufficient competition to get a phone/tablet you like.
  • Mondozai - Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - link

    It does matter who is #2, because it influences the Android market, and thus competition. Also, both Qualcomm and Samsung are late. That's just a fact.

    Krysto is right that Qualcomm missed the 64-bit train, which is why they demoted their CMO when he started to trash Apple's A7. If they are forced to use ARM designs for their first 64-bit chip it is essentially an admission of failure to predict where the market would be. (If you actually need 64-bit SoC's in phones for 2014 is up for debate, I think it's highly debatable.

    But the fact is that the market has moved here in preparation for future phones and tablets and Qualcomm is late. Simple as. But it's not going to be very serious. If they can get their Krait 64-bit before the year is over or very early next year, not much is lost. But still; embarrassing to be so flatfooted and kudos to Apple for driving the ecosystem(once again).

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