In part 3, we learnt about MediaTek and how it took on the industry by surprise with its low cost chipsets:
In this part, we shall go a little more in-depth into the technology of processors/chipsets along with the quad core myth & propaganda which will help us understand how MediaTek manages to offer its chipsets at such low costs.
Before going into the details, lets take up a fictitious problem:
The problem is that we have a huge pile of fruits in our room, and all of it must be consumed as soon as possible. We can bring friends, pets & other animals as well to consume it quickly, but the challenge is to consume as much as possible in shortest possible time and at the same time ensure that the room is not congested due to a crowd of “eaters”.
Our friend suggests that we hire a cute little monkey of a special breed which can eat all kinds of fruits & vegetables. Lets call that breed “A5“.
It is a cute little monkey which can eat at the rate of “10 gulps per minute” and it begins the “work”. But after few mins, you realize that it will take eternity for this monkey to consume the whole pile because it does not actually gulp down each fruit at once but eats only a small part of it per gulp. i.e It eats a small bite (1/10th) of a banana per gulp and hence it requires 1 minute to completely eat the whole banana at its rate of “10 gulps per minute”.
So what do we do now? Bring in more monkeys? Yeah, sounds good. Lets hire another such monkey of the “A5” breed so that the consumption rate doubles.
Lets call this “Dual-Monkey” team.
But we still have a problem. Inspite of having 2 monkeys of the “A5” breed, it is being consumed at 2 fruits per minute which is very slow.
What do we do now? Lets add 2 more monkeys of the “A5” breed and make it a “Quad-Monkey” team.
The stock is now being consumed at 4 fruits per minute which is a good improvement but cant we make it better?
A friend suggests that we get rid of these monkeys and instead hire a single chimpanzee of the “A7” breed which can finish this faster.
This chimp eats at “20 gulps per minute” which is twice as fast compared to the monkey, and its owner claims that it is much more efficient because of a special technique: It begins eating the next bite even before the previous bite goes down the throat and at the same time, its hands & legs would be peeling the next fruit. He calls this “pipelining”. One small problem is that hiring this “A7” chimp is expensive compared to the “A5” monkey. But we are fine with it because it is much more efficient and hence the premium is justified. This single chimp, with the use of pipelining can now eat 3 fruits per minute. But since our “Quad-Monkey” team was able to manage 4 fruits per minute, we need 2 chimps to overtake it and hence we get rid of the monkeys and form our new “Dual-Chimp” team which now consumes 6 fruits in 1 minute.
We can even add 2 more chimps to increase it to 12 fruits per minute but wait. Another friend suggests that we now hire a Gorilla of “A9” breed which comes at a premium and can single handedly beat everybody else when it comes to eating.
Although this gorilla also eats at “20 gulps per minute” (same as the chimp’s gulp rate), this is much more efficient because apart from pipelining & other special techniques, this gorilla can shove down several fruits at once!! Our simple test with the gorilla showed us that it could eat 8 fruits in 1 minute!! Which means 4 such gorillas can eat 32 fruits in just 1 minute!!
Although it comes at a huge premium, to save time & space, we finally get rid of all our monkeys & chimps and replace them with this expensive “Quad-Gorilla” team which effectively consumes 32 fruits in 1 minute. Within a few mins, this team finishes our pile of fruits and goes out to the forest searching for more.
Now, enough of this monkey-chimp-gorilla fictitious story
Lets come back to our original topic of processors. If you were able to understand the monkey-fruit problem and its possible solutions which we discussed above, you have understood the basics of processor technology. We can easily correlate all the examples and concepts from the above monkey-gorilla fictitious story with processor technology.
One of the most basic specifications of a processor is its “Clock speed” which represents the number of “Clock cycles” per second. A “Clock cycle” is the smallest time-interval of a processor. For example, in a 1 MHz (1,000,000) processor, each clock cycle is of the time-interval equal to 1 micro second. (1/1,000,000). Clock speed is the speed at which it can perform operations and is similar to “Gulping speed” of the above monkey-gorilla story. (A 1 MHz processor can perform 1,000,000 operations per second).
But didn’t we notice that just gulping speed was not a sufficient indicator of performance? Just like how a small monkey might have fast gulping speed but requires several gulps to eat a full fruit (and hence a long time to finish the pile), an unsophisticated processor might have faster clock speed but might need several such “clock cycles” to perform even the most basic operation.
The next specification is the number of cores i.e The number of processors combined together to form the final CPU (Central Processing Unit). Just like how we formed teams of Quad-Monkey or Dual-Chimp to consume our fruits in the shortest possible time, we can combine individual processors to form Dual-Core or Quad-Core CPU to compute in the shortest possible time (and hence improve its speed). Having said that, just increasing the cores will not increase the speed in same proportions and we shall go into those details later.
The final and one of the most important specifications is the type of each core in the CPU. Just like how we had an option of hiring a monkey or a chimp or gorilla, companies can similarly use an unsophisticated processor technology or a moderate performing technology or the latest technology. The different types of smartphone processor designs (architectures) are A5, A7, A9 (and more) which are provided by ARM and implemented (licensed) by chipset companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek etc. A5 is one of the most basic, cheap and slow processor whereas A9 is sophisticated and expensive. (In ARM “A” series, higher the number, better the processor).
To summarize: When a specification says “1.6GHz Quad Core ARM® Cortex™ A7 CPU”, it means the CPU has 4 processor cores with each core being ARM A7 architecture at 1.6 GHz clock speed.
Now, lets compare chipset of a flagship phone of Micromax (Canvas 4) with chipset of a flapship phone of a company like Sony (Xperia Z) which were released in the same year with comparable specs on paper.
Although both have quad-core processors, we can see that Micromax has a MediaTek chipset with A7 architecture whereas the Sony phone has Qualcomm chipset with Krait architecture which is several generations ahead of the A7 architecture. In fact, Krait is comparable to the A15 architecture.
Hence in this comparison of Canvas 4 vs Xperia Z, we find that the CPU of Micromax has an outdated architecture which is slow & inefficient compared to that of Xperia Z. Reputed review sites like CPUBoss have tested performance of both the chips and awarded 9 out of 10 score to Qualcomm S4 Pro with Krait (which is used in Sony Xperia Z), while the MediaTek chipset with A7 architecture (which in turn is used in Micromax Canvas 4) got a meagre score of 6.2 out of 10.
This way, MediaTek manages to cut costs on its chipset in Micromax Canvas 4 by:
- Using outdated architecture which has very cheap licensing cost (to be paid to ARM).
- Fabricating outdated architecture which is cheaper because the companies would have recovered investment costs over the years
But at the same time, they mislead customers by advertising terms like “Quad-Core” while in reality, even certain “Dual-Core” processors by Qualcomm would be able to beat a “Quad-Core” of MediaTek. (For example, a dual core A9 chipset by Qualcomm can easily beat a quad core A5 chipset by MediaTek).
In fact, such misleading marketing has been pretty common and we have seen harsh realities like iPhone with dual-core beating rivals with quad-core.
Of late, companies like Qualcomm have been trying to debunk MediaTek’s misleading claims by creating awareness among customers.
Here is one such ad:
The takeaway from this part is that a buyer must be aware of these marketing gimmicks and not fall for the quad-core specifications highlighted in advertisements.
Processor/Chipset is just one component (but one of the most critical & expensive) and there many more components and factors to be considered while comparing or judging about smartphones. We shall discuss those in the next part.
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