Are Apple Inc.'s Mobile CPU Designs No Better Than Qualcomm Inc.'s?

By Ashraf

Apple's latest iPhones. Image source: Apple.

In a recent piece published in the EETimes, chip industry analyst Linley Gwennapwas quoted as saying the "performance of the Apple-design[ed] CPU core is very good, but no better than that of [Qualcomm's] Snapdragon."

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I respectfully disagree with Gwennapand believe that since Apple began rolling out its home-grown mobile CPU cores, it's had a defensible lead over Qualcomm in terms of mobile CPU performance. Here's why.

An historical perspectiveApple first introduced its own custom-designed CPU core, known as Swift, in the A6 chip that powered the iPhone 5, breaking with Apple's previous tradition of using off-the-shelf ARM CPU cores.

Since then, Apple has used its own custom ARM-compatible CPU designs in its follow-on mobile processors. These CPUs are generally regarded to offer best-in-class performance and power efficiency in smartphones.

Qualcomm, too, has been designing its own custom ARM-compatible CPU cores for use in its flagship Snapdragon processors, although it continues to opt for off-the-shelf ARM designs for its midrange and low-end processors, as ARM's designs are quite good for those classes of devices.

In the table below, I show the CPU cores and the years they debuted in devices that consumers could purchase from both Apple and Qualcomm:

Data source: AnandTech.

Let's take a look at how the Apple-designed cores have compared with the Qualcomm-designed ones.

Digging into performance In order to compare the performance levels of these chips, I am going to use a performance test known as Geekbench 3 (we will use the single-core test in order to do a like-for-like comparison of the CPU cores).

It is far from perfect, but I feel this is a good way to do a fairly quick and easy comparison of the performance levels of these mobile CPU cores, especially since there is plenty of data in the Geekbench 3 database for just about any mobile processor that one wants to find.

Without further ado, let's get to the results. First, Qualcomm:

Data source: Geekbench 3 database.

Now, Apple:

Data source: Geekbench 3 database.

To the extent that Geekbench 3 is a reliable indication of CPU performance, it would appear Apple has managed to release faster CPUs than Qualcomm has, all at a more rapid cadence.

Devices using Qualcomm's next generation CPU core, known as Kryo, are expected to arrive in the March/April timeframe per the company's public statements. Even if Kryo were to offer similar levels of performance to Apple's Twister (possible, but my guess is that it will fall short), Apple still would have a solid six-month lead in getting a Twister-class CPU core to market in high volumes over Qualcomm.

In an industry where product cycles are about a year long, that's a not-so-trivial achievement.

All told, although I don't want to take away from Qualcomm's efforts in the mobile chip space -- it is far and away the top merchant silicon vendor -- I think the claim that Apple doesn't lead the industry, at least in terms of mobile CPU designs, doesn't hold water.

Does this matter one iota to sales?For chip nerds such as myself, trying to get a handle on the competitive dynamics between Apple's CPU core efforts and Qualcomm's is interesting, but from a business perspective it doesn't really matter much.

I doubt that any of the millions of people who buy iPhones each year are doing so because of the CPU performance of the devices relative to the CPU performance seen in top Android devices. There are other considerations such as the industrial design, brand image, customer service, camera quality, graphics performance, battery life, and much, much more.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Qualcomm. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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