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Desktop CPU's VS. Mobile CPU's - Serious Discussion

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  • CPUs
  • Mobile
  • Desktops
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March 29, 2011 7:33:36 PM

Hey guys.

I'm far from an expert on this subject, but I've been wondering about this for quite some time now. I know there are some really smart people here at Tom's who might be able to offer their thoughts, opinions, and knowledge about this subject.

The basic premise of this discussion is the speed at which CPU's in our mobile devices are progressing in comparison to our beloved desktop counter-parts.

I'm not sure if I'm using the proper term here, but by "mobile CPU's" I'm referring more so towards SoC's (Snapdragon, Tegra 2, OMAP, etc.) used in phones and other small devices, rather than mobile CPU's you see in a notebook. Should I refer to it as ARM CPU's instead? Please forgive my lack of knowledge in this subject. I just don't want this discussion to become ARM vs. Intel vs. AMD. I'll stick with SoC's.

Enough with the nonsense. What do you guys think about the progression of CPU's in our smartphones over the last few years?

From what I've gathered, the smartphone arena was pretty stagnant from introduction of blackberry's in 2002 up until late 2008, when we started seeing the first android devices and the iPhone was in its second generation. I believe the first android phone(HTC Dream) was clocked in around 500mhz(192MB RAM) while the first couple iPhones were clocked in around 400mhz(128MB RAM). By late 2009-early 2010, only a year later, we started seeing phones hit 1GHz that had 512MB RAM.

Here we are in early 2011, and we are already starting to see dual-core mobile phones with a full 1GB of RAM. This is only the beginning, as we are expected to see 1.5GHz QUAD-CORE smartphones(2GB RAM?) by the end of 2011.

To put things in perspective, we were seeing Athlon T-birds hit 1GHz in 2000, almost 10 years before the first smartphone hit 1GHz. It wasn't until 2005 that we saw our first dual-core on the desktop market, but it was still almost 6 years before the first dual-core smartphone. Intel managed to squeeze out the first quad-core just before 2007, while we expecting quad-cores to hit phones just before 2012, a 5 year difference. Early 2010 showed us Hex-core CPU's from both Intel and AMD, which smartphones aren't even close to using(or are they?) I should also mention for the sake of mentioning that both Intel and AMD are expected to release Octo-Core CPU's by the end of 2011.


Obviously Desktop CPU's are still much more powerful then their handheld counter-parts. A top of the line SoC gets stomped even by even the weakest of desktop CPU's(non-Atom). However, what I find very interesting is the rate at which these mobile CPU's are progressing. Within a matter of 2 years they progressed from 500mhz to 1Ghz to dual-cores, something that took the desktop side around 6 years.

Of course, the mobile industry has a couple advantages that the desktop side didn't. For one, Intel and AMD were the first to do it, making those innovations in the CPU industry, that is. Since these advancements had already been made, it's easier for current SoC manufacturers to implement them into their current chips. Secondly, they have a HUGE headstart with the ability to use a much smaller fabrication process then older chips. Current dual-core SoC's are using a 45nm(Snapdragon) or 40nm(Tegra) fabrication process. The athlon 64 x2's were manufactured at double that, using a 90nm fab. process. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the first athlons to hit 1GHz were using a whopping 180nm fab. process. Yikes.

But these mobile CPU's do happen to have a few disadvantages over our power-house desktop CPU's. The first is simply because an SoC isn't just a CPU, it's EVERYTHING(hence System-on-a-Chip). Take the Nvidia Tegra 2 for example, the dual-core CPU(ARM Cortex-A9), GPU, North/Southbridge, and memory controller are all integrated onto a single package. Forgive my lack of knowledge, but I believe this is more of a comparison to earlier dual-cores, such as Core 2 duo or Athlon 64 x2. Compared to recent generations of desktop CPU's its quite similar, as Intel's Clarkdale contained most of the northbridge, the memory controller, and the GPU on single package, and Sandy bridge even put the GPU on the same die as the CPU. That being said, the desktop side can add dedicated graphics, which offer huge performance increases, something SoC's lack.

I believe the real disadvantages lie within the small form factor and power usage - to be honest, its pretty amazing. These devices are incredibly small, especially when you set it on top of your gaming rig and see the real size difference. The Samsung Galaxy S II for example, it may feature Tegra 2 and have a 1GHz Dual-core ARM Cortex A9, an 8-core Geforce GPU, 1GB RAM, 32GB Flash Memory, and is only 8.49mm thick! Oh, and there isn't a giant CPU fan or case fans to cool it either. Also, a Tegra 2 SoC has a ridiculous power envelope of like 1 watt, where as a current gen desktop dual-core has a 65W TDP or higher. Seriously, a power envelope of 1 watt? I'm just going to throw it out there that we have people stuffing 1000W power supplies into their desktops(Yes, I know why). Kal-El, the successor to Tegra 2, which is expected in android phones by the end of 2011, will feature a 1.5GHz Quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU, and a 12-core Geforce GPU, and expects to to be 3-5 times faster than Tegra 2, all while consuming LESS POWER than the Tegra 2. :o 



The reality is that right now smartphones are nowhere near the performance of even a half-decent desktop. It also seems like nonsense to even think that they might "catch up" to the same level of performance of desktops. Heck, you can go on newegg right now and buy a DIY combo for $198 that includes a 2.9GHz Athlon II x2, 2GB RAM, 500GB HDD, along with a case, mobo, and PSU. That $198 system would absolutely destroy any smartphone on the market today.

That being said, the speed at which our mobile devices are progressing is scary, yet amazing at the same time. If we really see 1.5GHz quad-cores in our smart phones by the end of 2011, who knows what we should expect in another 3 years. I'm certainly not complaining when Android phones are going from a 500mhz single-core CPU in December of '08 to a 1.5GHz Quad-core CPU in December of '11. I'll add for the sake of causing a flame-war that the original iPhone launched '07 with a 412mhz single-core CPU, while 4 years later the iPhone 4 only has a 800mhz single-core CPU(talk about progression :kaola:  ). Anyhow, if this progression continues(for android devices), I will be very excited to see what will be coming in the future. Hell, our phones may be powerful enough to run current-gen video games to a 1080p display, they might even be able to run Crysis 2(not a challenge :pfff:  ) the original Crysis!


So what do you guys think? Is it possible for smartphones and their ever-progressing SoC's to reach the levels of performance that desktop CPU's have to offer? Or will it be never-ending game of catch-up?

Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on this subject, as well as offer any advice!


Also, please correct me if I said anything that was completely moronic. As I stated earlier, I'm no expert on this subject, although It does fascinate me. Sorry for making this post so long! For more info on Kal-El - http://blogs.nvidia.com/2011/02/tegra-roadmap-revealed-...

More about : desktop cpu mobile cpu discussion

March 29, 2011 8:11:56 PM

Depends what you mean. Will smartphone CPUs reach the processing level of today's desktop chips at some point in the future? Yeah, probably.

Will they reach the processing level of their own contemporary desktop chips? Less likely, though not impossible. Really, I think the question in this case is, "When does the required desktop performance taper off to the point where a smartphone chip can do (nearly) anything the desktop requires?"

Generally speaking, the thermal and power requirements of the smartphone will always make it possible for desktop CPUs to be better purely in terms of die size. The question is how much "better" is needed, and will we reach a plateau point? Nvidia's banking on it.
March 29, 2011 9:14:38 PM

I was leaning more towards a current smartphone being on the same level as a current desktop. Not so much a 2015 SoC with the same power as a 2009 i7 950.

Ah I didn't even consider the plateau effect that might happen once desktops get too powerful. I will say I don't think that will happen anytime soon.

I remember my PIII rig with a 40GB HDD, and I thought, what on earth would I ever need 320GB for? Then I got my first 320GB HDD and thought, what on earth would anyone ever need 1TB for? Well, two 1TB HDD's in Raid are not that uncommon today. Same story with the 128MB of RAM in my PIII to the common 8GB of RAM today.

I feel like the more powerful our PC's get the more we will throw at them. You are probably thinking "duh"... I just don't see them reaching a plateau anytime soon because of past experiences. I think anyone who buys 24GB of RAM is out of their mind, but the reality is that it won't be uncommon for a desktop to have that much RAM in 5 or so years. Who knows what kind of super high-def video encoding will be going on then.

Well, I'm talking too much again, thanks for the response!
Related resources
March 29, 2011 9:58:03 PM

inb4 TL: D(idn't)R

only kidding! :kaola: 

Interesting read actually, although I'm curious, how long did it take you to type this?

My input would be that smartphones are catching up, but I doubt the gap will narrow too much, unless of course a certain event happens. You know how PC games have diminished in quality due to developers porting them over from dated consoles? Well picture that happening to the entire PC. Smartphones are slowly becoming fast enough to fulfill the 'average' persons needs (email, facebook, youtube, casual gaming). If the 'average' person doesn't need a PC, or laptop for that matter, they won't buy one. Why waste the money when their smartphone can do the same thing?

This could potentially lead to a similar outcome that PC Gamers are experiencing right now. All the money is in console gaming, so developers focus on the money makers(consoles), porting the crappy console graphics over to PC, even though good PC's are capable of graphics far beyond that of a console. This could also be due to piracy or lack of users on PC, but in the end it all boils down to money, and it screws over the real, non-pirating PC gamers.

So what happens in 5 years, when a smartphone can potentially fulfill all the tasks needed by the 'average' pc user? The majority will stick with their smartphones and ditch the bulky PC's and laptops. Desktop PC's, although the most powerful, will become the minority. Developers/Programmers will see money in smartphones, with an endless possibility for $1.99 apps. Since us PC users love us from freeware, we get the cold shoulder from programmers and developers. I mean who really wants to pay for antivirus software? Slowly but surely new applications get ported from weakling smartphones to our PC's. All programs become optimized for smartphones, even our web browsers. Of course we can't even get the full potential out of our $5000 6GHz 12-core, 48GB RAM, 980 GTX QUAD-SLI god-like gaming rig because of these GOD DAMN CRAPPY SMARTPHONE PORTS. "WHY US? WHY GOD WHY? WE ARE THE PC ELITIST, THIS CAN'T HAPPEN!", WE THEN CRY OURSELVES TO SLEEP AS THE WORLD FALLS TO PIECES AROUND US. The end.


But seriously, this could happen. It's not likely, but there is potential.

-Btw I'm poking fun at PC Elitists because I am one of them. I truly fear the downfall of the desktop PC. I love everything about my desktop, even if there are no good PC games anymore :( 
Oh well, BF3 comes out in November, which has the possibility of being better than sex (don't quote me on that) :D 
March 29, 2011 10:13:12 PM

I suspect the smartphone will sooner replace the notebook rather than the desktop, even though I personally would rather set myself on fire than to fully transition from a notebook to a smartphone when it comes to work (though I'm not so elitist that I can't see the draw for personal use, web-surfing and the like).

The desktop will have more staying power, IMO, though the software erosion you point out is a real danger.
a b à CPUs
March 29, 2011 10:51:27 PM

My wife has a Samsung smart phone (poor man's iPhone without the appstore :p ) - she has to charge it up nightly or else try and get through the next day without a cellphone at work (i.e., major crisis time :p ). My dumb-arse phone however will go over a week without charging, and even if it died I wouldn't have a midlife crisis :D .

My point is, we've been hearing all about improving battery tech for the last 4-5 years, particularly all those DailyTech articles on sticking nano-particles into LiOn batteries or some such, yielding a 10X battery storage improvement. So where are all these super batteries?? I don't see any for sale online or at Walmart..

So until these super batteries do come on the market and are cheap enough to afford, then the power requirements for a truly mobile CPU will always be such that it has to last at least 12 hours with some use (i.e., you unplug it from the charger in the morning before work and then plug it back in at night when home). So really large improvements in ARM and Atom SoCs will come about with process shrinks more than anything else I imagine.

Also, I really can't envision a smartphone replacing a desktop at work. I can see myself now sending business email by texting on the number pad :p ..

"Boss - R U Bzy or shld I C U L8R? My unit l33t w $5M sales last qtr - whre my bonus?? TTFN"
March 29, 2011 10:53:40 PM

@archibael - Exactly, a smartphone makes no sense for work, its simply irritating. You can be much more productive with a full size keyboard+mouse on a desktop, or even a notebook when it comes to the work environment.

It's very likely we will be seeing more "webtops" like the dummy notebook thats featured with and powered by the new Motorola Atrix dual-core smartphone. Unfortunately I like this idea, because it eliminates the need for a notebook for me, provided the smartphone can give me a fast enough "notebook-like" experience on the webtop. I see these being very common in a few years.


@heyhihowyadurrin - A few hours or so, I have a problem where once I start typing I don't know when to stop... Haha. Your notion about the "downfall of PC's" really caught my attention. That does seem very possible, and its kind of scary to think about. I think it would hit Microsoft especially hard. I fear that if Microsoft starts to lose its user base they will only charge more for its software in order to gain a profit. At some point Microsoft needs to accept the fact that each one of their Windows 7 Ultimate licenses isn't worth $300. Well I'm getting way off topic.

On a side note - I'm also pumped for BF3!
March 29, 2011 11:02:15 PM

fazers_on_stun said:

So until these super batteries do come on the market and are cheap enough to afford, then the power requirements for a truly mobile CPU will always be such that it has to last at least 12 hours with some use (i.e., you unplug it from the charger in the morning before work and then plug it back in at night when home). So really large improvements in ARM and Atom SoCs will come about with process shrinks more than anything else I imagine.

Also, I really can't envision a smartphone replacing a desktop at work. I can see myself now sending business email by texting on the number pad :p ..

"Boss - R U Bzy or shld I C U L8R? My unit l33t w $5M sales last qtr - whre my bonus?? TTFN"



Valid point, batteries may very well be the mechanical hard drive of a high end desktop(aka the bottleneck). It might be that these super batteries aren't in phones yet for the same reason everyone doesn't have an SSD in their tower... it costs too damn much! I really do wonder how much performance we'd be able to pull out of these SoC's if we pushed more power into them. Maybe we'll need power-bricks for our smartphones now :D 
a b à CPUs
March 30, 2011 12:35:09 AM

amk09 said:
Valid point, batteries may very well be the mechanical hard drive of a high end desktop(aka the bottleneck). It might be that these super batteries aren't in phones yet for the same reason everyone doesn't have an SSD in their tower... it costs too damn much! I really do wonder how much performance we'd be able to pull out of these SoC's if we pushed more power into them. Maybe we'll need power-bricks for our smartphones now :D 


Well, I do see a market for a smartphone CPU with an ultra-mobile power sipping mode (for use as a standalone smartphone) and maybe a higher-power mode for some sort of docking workstation application, where you have a keyboard & mouse, large screen and a decent amount of storage space. Although that last may not be necessary if cloud computing takes off. In fact, we really wouldn't need that fast of a CPU if cloud computing takes off - just a decent amount of bandwidth. And if alternative inputs like speech recognition ever get below 1% error rates, maybe we could lose the keyboard too :D .

Right now my company lets us managers work 4 days out of every 10 at home, but we have a very clumsy system where our W@H laptops VPN to our desktops which then connect to the company email and other applications servers, due to security concerns, so we easily consume twice the necessary bandwidth compared to if the laptops connected directly to the internal systems. The company is replacing these laptops & desktops with a quad-core laptop that will have all the software and security and storage installed for connecting directly to the internal systems. Unfortunately, this means we will be lugging 8+ pound laptops to and from home 8 times every 2 weeks.

So I guess I will have some massive biceps - at least in one arm - in about a year from now :p . Ahnold would be semi-proud :D .

Yeah I could see a mobile-phone-sized replacement device as being really useful, as long as it had decent I/O and storage.
March 30, 2011 12:06:56 PM

Quote:
Google Nexus One got a Hummingbird Soc

But the problem with the most devices they make a awesome then go plonk windows on it......
Phones with windows on it is nothing but problems


Ha. You shouldn't have too hard of a time finding an Android device, considering they dominate the smartphone market.

I will say that Windows is gradually getting better. My buddy has a newer Windows phone and for the short time I tried it out it ran pretty nice, with the exception of using Bing, which wasn't a bad experience, but I just so happen to be a Google fanboy. :D 

Anyways, he loves his new windows phone, but I think its more so because its his first smartphone, as well as the fact as he is not so tech savvy and everything amazes him. (i.e. He likes apple)
a b à CPUs
March 30, 2011 1:43:33 PM

^ IDC says Windows Phone will dominate sales by 2015 according to CNN this morning..
March 31, 2011 5:14:59 AM

amk09 said:
Hey guys.

I'm far from an expert on this subject, /

No. SOC is always be slower than a current desktop, that it, is desktop survives. Most people won't care though, see the netbook craze as example.
June 4, 2011 4:22:57 AM

Also, I really can't envision a smartphone replacing a desktop at work. I can see myself now sending business email by texting on the number pad :p ..

I'm thinking if that scenerio ever came about the employers, might provide the screen, keyboard and mouse. The latter two running off mini usb and the screen wireless some how? IR or bluethooth? Also I'm guessing flexable roll up keyboards and flexible OLED screens while using the smartphones own screen as a track pad for the mouse might compete with the note books. If you are on a bus or a train and need to type a document all you would have to do is plug your smart phone into a 4oz. plastic manila folder looking type case/contraption and there's your notebook. I own a water cooled gaming rig and I highly agree with the above statements concerning "software eroson" Unfortunately it seems that "it's all about the buck" might be pretty accurate. It's kind of a shame they're not going to let up push the limits of Kepler and the like.
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