2021 has been a very good year for mobile chips for Android. Despite the shortage of semiconductors, founders have been able to offer high-performance SoCs. A look back at the past year with its good and less good surprises, while waiting for the 2022 vintage.
The year which has just lowered its curtain has seen the appearance of very effective mobile chips for smartphones in the world of Android. The first few weeks were marked by Qualcomm’s new model, the Snapdragon 888 , as well as Samsung’s, the Exynos 2100 . This latest SoC, eagerly awaited by the public, had the mission of restoring the luster of its previous chips to the South Korean company, after models that were set back from the competition.
But these two players are far from alone on the scene and 2021 has seen MediaTek, a time eclipsed by its competitors, make a strong comeback thanks to its Dimensity range. Many manufacturers have chosen the Taiwanese founder who has been able to offer good performance for a lower price. This has allowed the end consumer to see the birth of entry-level or mid-range smartphones with a fairly aggressive price/performance ratio.
The past year will also have been one during which more and more manufacturers have worked to free themselves from the founders Qualcomm and MediaTek via their own platform. An approach adopted by Samsung (Exynos) and Huawei (Kirin) for many years on Android, but also by Apple and its iOS. Google first embarked on this path with its Tensor , a SoC combining CPU and GPU, largely oriented towards artificial intelligence. Other companies are also thinking about it, such as Xiaomi or Oppo. The latter firm also unveiled its first test last December, the MariSilicon X, a processor primarily designed for mobile photography that we should see appear in 2022. Let’s specify it here: we have focused on chips dedicated to Android smartphones, excluding Apple A15 Bionic, whose performance is no longer to be proven, and which is reserved for its own products.
Smartphone heating: a thorn in performance
In 2021 again, Qualcomm has proven its mastery of high-end SoCs. Its Snapdragon 888 and 888+ have proven to be excellent during their various runs on our test bench. However, note that not all manufacturers manage to take full advantage of the two processors of the American company. Some prefer caution and reduce operating frequencies to the detriment of performance, while others give free rein to thermal heating in order to provide maximum performance. In the ranking of the best smartphones under Snapdragon 888, it is the Surface Duo 2 that does well, followed by the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. It is funny to see that the South Korean company offers more powerful smartphones with the Qualcomm platform than with its in-house SoC.
On the Snapdragon 888+ side, made available later and less widespread on the market, the Asus ROG Phone 5s Pro provides the best performance. The second smartphone to ship this chipset is the Motorola Moto G200 , but the latter is visibly less performance oriented than the Asus model – by desire to offer operation limiting heating or simply by lack of optimization of the chassis. This is what can be seen with regard to the performance offered by default, that is to say without active “boost” mode and without switching to a higher refresh rate than what is offered as standard.
However, this excess of power, controlled or not, is accompanied by a small inconvenience that we noted when the processor appeared in early 2021. The Snapdragon 888 tends to heat up, which can affect performance and autonomy during prolonged gaming sessions. Over the course of the year, the brands were able to circumvent this inconvenience with varying degrees of efficiency. Nevertheless, on the first smartphones to have opted for the SoC, the heat release was not very pleasant in the hand.
Google was able to create a surprise in 2021 by announcing its intention to offer a processor of its design in its current flagships. The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro therefore ignore the Qualcomm SoCs, at work on the previous Pixels, and prefer to compete with the American company. The Google Tensor has shown itself to be more than capable, establishing itself as a solid alternative to the big names on the market. But like the Snapdragon 888, the Google chip tends to heat up, especially when playing or using the photo application.
Another good surprise: this time from Qualcomm and one of its most recent mid-range chips. The Snapdragon 778G left us with an excellent impression, regardless of the smartphone in which it was found. This processor appeared at the same time as the Samsung Galaxy A52s , a revised version of the Galaxy A52. A mid-range model that means a lot to the South Korean company, which is stepping up its efforts to offer the best quality/innovation/price ratio in a very competitive segment. The Snapdragon 778G was then invited on the Honor 50, the Motorola Edge 20 , or the Xiaomi 11 Lite 5G NE. Apart from the latter, the SoC has always offered excellent performance, even rivaling the Snapdragon 888 and generally offering better results in the field of autonomy.
The graph above shows that the Snapdragon 778G has nothing to envy to a higher-end chip. Almost all manufacturers have managed to take full advantage of its potential, which will have surprised us the first time. There’s only one Surface Duo 2 to keep up with all models with the mid-range SoC. Certainly one of the very good surprises in 2021, which we hope to see a little more often in 2022.
This is not a twist here, the Exynos 2100 from Samsung disappointed us. However, let’s qualify since the South Korean SoC does much better than its predecessors. The chip has started its 2021 year very well, competing without forcing too much with the other models on the market. It did not let itself be faced with the first smartphones arriving with the Snapdragon 888, but unfortunately it was quickly overtaken, even by mid-range SoCs such as the Snapdragon 778G.
The main problem with the Exynos 2100 is its graphics, which failed to meet the requirements in the field. A confession conceded by officials of the CPU division of Samsung. In addition, and as was the case with most high-end processors, the 2021 Exynos heats up a lot when under load. However, this necessarily impacts the autonomy of the smartphone, as well as its performance over time.
Let’s give a very honorable mention to two processors: the Snapdragon 870 and the MediaTek Dimensity 1200. The former is a slight evolution of the Snapdragon 865, which was integrated into the Oppo Reno 6 Pro , the Vivo X60 Pro or the Realme GT Neo 2 . It is a transition chip between the Snapdragon 888 and its Plus version, which delivers performance fairly equivalent to that offered by the Dimensity 1200, the high-end SoC from the Taiwanese founder. The latter came back in force in 2021, multiplying the processors on the various segments. However, we only actually tested it on the Xiaomi 11T . A version called Dimensity 1200 AI also appeared on the OnePlus Nord 2, a version exclusive to the Chinese smartphone and a little less attractive than its “basic” side.
On the graph, we observe that the Snapdragon 870 performs as well as a Snapdragon 778G. Let’s also add that the evolution of the Snapdragon 865 scores as much as the first smartphones running Snapdragon 888, such as the Xiaomi Mi 11.
What to expect in 2022?
This year which starts is not likely to be stingy in processors. Qualcomm, Samsung and MediaTek are obviously among the most anticipated players, but a fourth (re) points the tip of its nose: the Chinese founder Unisoc.
Qualcomm is eagerly awaited with its Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 announced in December 2021. The new SoC is already present on the Xiaomi 12 , Motorola Edge X30 and OnePlus 10 Pro , smartphones currently marketed only in China, but which should land fairly quickly with us. Still at the American foundry, we can also expect the evolutions of the Snapdragon 778G or Snapdragon 870 which, hopefully, will be at least as efficient as in 2021.
At Samsung, it is of course the Exynos 2200 which arouses expectation. Very recently announced, the South Korean in-house chip has an entirely new graphics part, thanks to a partnership with AMD – the RDNA2 architecture is used, the same as that prevailing in the Radeon RX 6000 computers or the SoCs of consoles Xbox Series and PS5. As a reminder, gaming was the Achilles heel of the Exynos 2100 in 2021. Samsung’s association with a major player in video games should breathe new life into the Exynos, whose integration into a first product is expected with the Galaxy S22 series.
In addition to its high-end chip, the company is being watched in the mid-range with an Exynos 1080 destined to compete with the Snapdragon 870. The SoC was announced in 2020, the company’s first processor to be engraved in 5 nm before the appearance of the Exynos 2100. However, we only saw it hosted in two smartphones: the Vivo X60 and X70 (only the Chinese versions). Will Samsung offer its new chip in phones dedicated to our territory? The question is currently open.
For its part, MediaTek presented its Dimensity 9000 at the end of 2021 , an “improved” 5 nm SoC, but marketed with 4 nm engraving – incidentally a world first. MediaTek does not hide its ambition against Qualcomm and Samsung, its next high-end chip to equip the Oppo Find X this spring .
Finally, let’s not forget Unisoc, which intends to make 2022 the year of its comeback on the market. Heir to Spreadtrum, the Chinese firm seems destined to provide entry-level smartphones or tablets, like the recent Nokia T20 or the Motorola e20, e30 and e40 . If the company seems to have convinced a lot of manufacturers in China, Unisoc SoCs are still quite confidential in France. The latter, however, managed to dethrone HiSilicon from third place among cross-country skiers in Asia. A great performance which certainly benefits from Huawei’s setbacks, but which should be highlighted.