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Why you should thank your phone's most undersung feature: Its processor

Your phone's camera, battery life and screen brightness don't just come from the sensors, battery and pixels.

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Your phone's best features depend on your chip.

Angela Lang/CNET

When you think of what you love most about your phone, what comes to mind? Its brilliant screen, perhaps, which makes movies and games a joy to watch. All the cameras on the front and back that capture your memories. Maybe it's the all-day battery life that keeps your phone humming along so you can enjoy all of the above. But you owe all these must-have features to a chip roughly the size of a fingernail.

No, a chip, or chipset, processor or SoC (system on a chip) as it's often called, isn't as sexy as astrophotography or an edge-to-edge display, but without it your phone wouldn't work.

It's this chipset that makes your apps open quickly, your games play smoothly and your portrait shots look astounding. Without it, you wouldn't be able to securely store your credit card information (and one day your digital driver's license) or unlock the phone with your face.

If you appreciate your phone, it's important to understand everything that the chipset does to power your favorite features. Those chipsets include the recently announced Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and 765 (which will run Android phones in 2020), Apple's A13 Bionic for iPhone, Samsung's Exynos 990 and Huawei's 5G HiSilicon Kirin 990 processor.

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Such a small chip is responsible for such a powerful phone.

Qualcomm

What your phone's chip controls

A mobile chipset contains bunches of processors in a single unit. It's a lot like a computer's motherboard, but in miniature. 

You'll find an area that houses the computing CPU, a GPU for processing graphics, an AI processor and a home for securely storing data. There's an ISP, an image signal processor that handles photography and videos and a dedicated unit for voice control. 

You may also see a memory hub, a modem to connect to the internet (this could also live separately) and an area that handles your phone's many sensors.

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Here are some features that you'll see on 2020 phones, thanks to the chip:

  • Ultrafast 5G download speeds
  • Up to 25% faster processing speeds
  • Longer-lasting battery life
  • Support for up to 200-megapixel cameras
  • 120Hz screen refresh rate for super-smooth scrolling, animations and gameplay
  • Much faster graphics for conference calls over 5G and real-time gaming
  • Faster AI processing, which could be used for voice assistants and automatically adjusting camera scenes
  • Wi-Fi 6 support for faster internet

For even more examples, here are 6 more cool, new features Android phones could get next year.

Just because it's on the chipset, doesn't mean it'll be on the phone

Phone makers often talk about their low-light photography, fast charging, and other features as if they invented them. And sure, brands like OnePlus, Google and LG all had a hand in customizing the way features look and act on a finished device. That's important. But most of the time, these brands didn't lay the foundation. The chip did that.

For example, if your chip doesn't support faster Wi-Fi 6 internet or a 200-megapixel camera, there's no chance your phone can use either one if the company isn't making a separate processor itself. 

But here's a brain twister. Even if the chip supports those features, you still might not get them on your phone. 

Here's why: Companies such as Qualcomm, MediaTek, Intel and AMD sell their chips (which aren't just for phones) to third-party device makers, who use the chips as they will. It's the device maker that becomes responsible for turning the feature on and making sure it all comes together in the final product. 

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If your phone has a fingerprint reader, it's because the chip can handle biometrics.

Sally Neiman/CNET

What does that mean for competition?

In general, different chip makers tend to have similar features to their rivals, including super slow-motion video, support for wireless charging and portrait mode photography. 

There are some notable exceptions, such as secure face unlock on the iPhone X ($899 at Amazon): It came two years before the Pixel 4's secure face unlock, which supports mobile payments.

There are also some brands that make chips or processors in-house, such as Apple's A13 Bionic processor, which powers the iPhone 11 ($699 at Amazon) phones. That gives the brand a leg up on building its own features that other phones don't have.

Samsung and Huawei also have a separate chip business that sells parts to the phone business. 

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Apple's proprietary Face ID feature gave it the upper hand.

Angela Lang/CNET

Does it matter which chip your phone has?

You might not care whether your phone has the latest chip or last year's as long as it has all the features you want for the price you're willing to pay. And you wouldn't want a premium processor on a $300 phone like the Moto G7 -- it would tank the battery and hike up the price.

But if you happen to know that your phone uses the most recent chipset, you can guess it'll be faster than one that uses last year's chip, meaning it could have better battery life with more camera tricks and it could be able to connect to the internet faster.

If you're ready to buy a new phone, we can help you figure out where to start. But when you do, take a moment to think about the powerful chip that makes it all happen.

Originally published earlier this week.