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Hummingbird vs Snapdragon: Rumble in the processor jungle

Hummingbird and Snapdragon are the innocuous nicknames of two powerful beasts -- the processors that power the hottest new smart phones. But what's the difference, and which is better?

When it comes to mobile phone processors, hummingbirds battle snapdragons in a gardening-themed fight for our hard-earned cash. The Qualcomm Snapdragon, which is in the Google Nexus One, seemingly started the trend for giving chips adorable names, and so became the first to make us wonder what was inside our own smart phone. Now the Samsung Hummingbird, which powers the Google Nexus S, has entered the horticultural fray.

But what's the difference, and which is better? Let us take you down the garden path.

The same, but different

Snapdragon and Hummingbird chips are made by different manufacturers, but they're both based on ARM technology. That doesn't mean they're twins, however.

Qualcomm started with the ARMv7 architecture and built its own chip based on that. Samsung's processor uses the ARM Cortex A8 core, which is also based on ARMv7. Samsung did plenty of development on its chip too, but it started further along the trail than Qualcomm.

ARM-based chips are everywhere, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a mobile phone that doesn't use one. They also power the iPhone, for example, and the Nokia N900 even has an ARM tattoo on the back.

If this all sounds rather obscure, we'll remind you that ARM is home-grown British goodness. ARM stands for 'Acorn RISC Machine', as in Cambridge-based Acorn Computers, maker of the much-loved BBC Micro

Peak performance

Both processors are aiming for the perfect storm of high speed and low power that makes mobile computing perfection. Their small size also makes them easier to pack in a phone and cheaper to make.

Snapdragon chips have been tweaked to achieve more instructions per clock cycle, and integrate GPS and mobile network receivers.

Hummingbird chips bite back with logic design that can do binary calculations, the bedrock of computing, with fewer instructions.

Clock speed is one of the biggest factors in how many instructions per second the processor can perform. Both chips usually run at 1GHz, though over-clocking and under-clocking are possible. They can handle around 2,000 instructions per second, or enough to construct an Ikea Billy bookcase in as little as one hour.

As in most things, more is better, but it's not as simple as comparing clock speeds and picking the faster one. Other elements, such as the number of instructions it takes to complete a given task, affect how well the phone actually performs. Nevertheless, you can use clock speed as an indicator of how good a processor is.

Another aspect of how fast your phone feels is the GPU, a processor dedicated to graphics that takes the heat off the main CPU. The amount of RAM also contributes to your phone's fun factor.

To compare the Hummingbird and the Snapdragon, our colleagues at CNET Asia ran a Samsung Galaxy S, which has Hummingbird on board, against a Google Nexus One and an HTC Desire, which are both Snapdragon phones. The Desire has slightly more RAM, with 575MB versus 512MB on the other two phones.

In tests for floating-point calculations and 2D graphics speed, Hummingbird came out on top, and in 3D graphics tests, it dominated the Snapdragon by a huge margin. All the phones have become even faster with updates to Android 2.2 Froyo.

In practice, however, we don't think the Galaxy S feels that much faster than the Desire or the Nexus One. They're all excellent phones, and fun to use, but the Galaxy S felt slower than it should because its software was sluggish and confusing in places. Thankfully, the update to Android 2.2 has cleared up many of its problems.

We re-ran the benchmarks after the Android 2.2 update with a Samsung Galaxy S, a Hummingbird phone, versus a Google Nexus One, with a Snapdragon. Both have 512MB of RAM. These numbers are averaged after several runs, and in each case, bigger is better.

Linpack test
Galaxy S (Hummingbird): 14
Nexus One (Snapdragon): 30

Benchmark by Softweg CPU test
Galaxy S (Hummingbird): 1,700
Nexus One (Snapdragon): 2,200

Benchmark by Softweg 2D graphics test
Galaxy S (Hummingbird): 31
Nexus One (Snapdragon): 28

Neocore 3D graphics test
Galaxy S (Hummingbird): 55.7
Nexus One (Snapdragon): 28.4

After the update, CPU performance is vastly improved for both phones. But the tables have turned, with the Nexus One outperforming the Galaxy S in both the Linpack and Softweg tests. We also note that graphics performance stays pretty much unchanged, with the Galaxy S staying on top. That goes to show that software has a massive impact on performance, irrespective of the processor.

The upshot is that even if a processor is faster, it doesn't necessarily mean the phone is better. Software and user interface design can have a greater influence on how fast a phone performs, or feels, than what's under the hood. That being said, if you're running the same power-hungry app or game on both chips, you won't be sorry to have a little more brawn.

Where can you get one?

The Snapdragon processor powers the Google Nexus One, the HTC Desire, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, and plenty of others. But it's not always ramped up to 1GHz -- the Acer Liquid was originally planned to be the first 1GHz Snapdragon phone, but it came in at 768MHz instead.

The Hummingbird, shy little chicken that it is, has only recently come to prominence with Google's launch of the Nexus S, but it's the same processor that was in the Galaxy S.

What's next?

Glad you asked. Mobile phones have been getting smarter every day, and it's unlikely to stop until we accept them as our robot overlords. 

Any minute now, we'll be welcoming phones that use the ARM Cortex A9 as a jumping-off point for even smoother gaming and faster apps. Expect 2GHz to become as common as muck in our lucky, lucky futures.

Intel is elbowing in on ARM with a low-power chip called the Z6xx, codenamed Moorestown. Its advantage could lie in the fact that it could be easier to port programs written for Intel-based computers to mobiles that also use Intel chips.

Another trend is multi-core processors, which can execute multiple instructions at once. Dual-core processors are already imminent, for example, in the BlackBerry PlayBook. The challenge for manufacturers is keeping battery life acceptably long, and designing new processor software that takes advantage of multiple cores.