MediaTek announced its next-generation flagship chip, called the Helio X30. The chip is one of the first to use the newer and more efficient Cortex-A35 and Cortex-A73 cores in its design. It will also be built on a 10nm FinFET process, which should help it compete toe-to-toe against Qualcomm and Samsung’s own high-end chips.
MediaTek’s Rise To The Top (In Performance)
MediaTek designed chips only for low-end and mid-range devices for a long time, until it eventually started making chips for high-end devices as well. At first, it used higher-clocked Cortex-A53 chips for upper mid-range devices (Helio X10), and then it switched to using high-end cores such as Cortex-A72 (Helio X20).
However, even with the Helio X20, the company wasn’t quite competitive with Qualcomm’s or Samsung’s best, because it was still at least a generation behind in terms of process technology (20nm planar vs 14nm FinFET).
MediaTek’s chips may have had similar instructions per cycle (IPC) to Qualcomm and Samsung’s chips, but the more modern process technologies put Qualcomm and Samsung’s chips significantly ahead in terms of performance and power consumption.
The Helio X30 is about to change that, because for the first time, MediaTek will actually use the same process technology as Qualcomm and Samsung: the 10nm FinFET process node. This should put MediaTek’s chip within striking distance of the performance and energy efficiency of Qualcomm and Samsung’s chips, while the company presumably sells it for a lower price.
New Cortex-A35 Cores
Using the latest process node is not enough. You also have to use the latest technologies to be competitive with the best in the industry. MediaTek seems to have done that, too. The chip is composed of 10 cores: four 1.9Ghz Cortex-A35 cores, four 2.2Ghz Cortex-A53 cores, and two 2.5Ghz Cortex-A73 cores.
Cortex-A35 is ARM’s most efficient 64-bit core, using 32% less power than Cortex-A53 at the same clock speed, and being 16% faster in browser tasks than Cortex-A7, also at the same clock speed.
Even though the Cortex-A35 core was announced in the fall of 2015 and was supposed to chip by the end of 2016, we haven’t seen it yet in chips. Chip designers may have preferred to use Cortex-A53 a while longer, even at the low-end, because they have more experience with it.
The MediaTek Helio X30 seems to be the first high-end chip to incorporate Cortex-A35 for low-end tasks that require maximum energy efficiency.
New Cortex-A73 Cores
At the high-end, for high-performance tasks, MediaTek implemented two Cortex-A73 cores, making the Helio X30 one of the first chips to implement these cores, too. The Cortex-A73 core promises a performance increase of up to 30% over Cortex-A72 at the same clock speed, while also being more efficient and less prone to overheat due to its 2-wide decoder (down from a 3-wide decoder in the Cortex-A72 core).
Because it should overheat less, it should also be able to sustain the high-performance level for longer periods of time. This sounds like a better compromise than Cortex-A72, even if the Cortex-A73 couldn’t have as high of a peak performance as it may have had if ARM had stayed with a 3-wide decoder.
Same Old Cortex-A53 Cores
The stranger part in the Helio X30’s design is that MediaTek decided to stick to using a four-core Cortex-A53 as well. It may have stuck with Cortex-A53 because it could give it a slightly higher clock speed (2.2GHz vs 1.9GHz), but the difference seems so small, the added complexity seems unnecessary. It may have been better for Helio X30 to just use four Cortex-A35 cores and two or four Cortex-A73 cores.
Alternatively, if MediaTek wanted to stay with a “10-core” chip for marketing purposes, it could’ve chosen a six or eight-core Cortex-A35 part for all the tens of background processes on Android, and then use two or four Cortex-A73 cores for the high-end tasks.
Regardless of this design decision, the Helio X30 looks to be quite impressive. According to MediaTek the Helio X30 shows a 35% increase in performance and 50% less power consumption compared to the Helio X20. However, much of this difference is likely due to the move from a 20nm planar process to a 10nm FinFET process.
TSMC’s 10nm FinFET process promises a 22% increase in performance or a 40% reduction in power consumption compared to TSMC’s 16nm FinFET process. The difference should be even larger when comparing Helio X30’s 10nm FinFET process to Helio X20’s 20nm planar process.
PowerVR 7XT MT4 GPU
MediaTek seems to have moved back to using Imagination’s PowerVR GPUs. Imagination’s struggles may have something to do with this, if the GPU company offered better prices than ARM’s G71 that goes into the Exynos 9 Series 8895. As MediaTek is still trying to be a budget version of Qualcomm’s chips, this probably made sense for the company.
The PowerVR 7XT architecture supports a few interesting features that Mali doesn’t have such as security through virtualization. However, it’s not clear whether MediaTek will take advantage of this to protect sensitive information such as fingerprint data.
The GPU also supports 4K HDR10 video at 30fps. Samsung’s latest chip supports 4K video at up to 120fps.
The Helio X30 will bring MediaTek’s Imagiq 2.0 Imaging Signal Processor (ISP), which supports 2x optical zoom. This feature is enabled by a dual-camera setup and should be welcome in more and more smartphones, as it’s quite useful. The dual-camera setup will also make 10x digital zoom possible.
Vision Processing Unit (VPU)
Just as the Exynos 8895, the MediaTek Helio X30 will come with a VPU as well, which should enable highly efficient machine learning tasks on mobile devices. Developers will be able to use MediaTek’s SDK with support for the Caffe and TensorFlow deep learning frameworks.