What's Inside A Smartphone's Processor and Why A Good Processor Matters

"Mark, what sets an expensive flagship-level smartphone apart from the cheaper ones?"

Aside from 'What's the best smartphone now?' or 'What's a good budget handset today?', the question above is probably the one that I've been asked the most ever since I started blogging about gadgets and technology.

My quick and simple answer to that is, "A company's flagship or top-of-the-line handset always has the best mobile processor that they could have given a phone during its year of release."

You can argue that the flagship smartphone always has the best display quality or the most opulent construction -- but when you really think about it, you'll realize that what's inside a device or what powers it is what makes it valuable.

Smartphone CPU

So why is a smartphone's processor or SoC (System on Chip) so important? What's inside it that makes the processor the one factor that divides handsets into price brackets?

Well, basically, the processor is both the heart and the brain of a mobile device. It's what determines the extent of power and the variety of supported features that a smartphone is capable of delivering.

Processor Components
Processor Components, Photo Credit: Qualcomm

As shown in the image above, the processor contains the CPU and GPU as well as the components controlling connectivity, the camera, the display, location services, digital signal processing, the sensors, multimedia features, as well as security.

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) processes all instructions that it gathers during the phone's operation, from decoding programs to moving data from one memory to another, among other things. In this era of multi-core CPUs, the power of individual cores along with the combined power of all cores determine the value of this component.

The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) essentially determines the quality of images that we see on screen. The CPU works with software applications and sends information to the graphics card about the image that needs to be displayed. The GPU - based on its power - decides how to use the pixels on the screen to create and show the image. Given this, a powerful GPU is crucial when running 3D games with high frame rates.

Other features determined by the processor include the Display Resolution (HD, Full HD, Quad HD, name it), the Photo and Video Resolution captured by the camera, Video Playback Quality, WiFi Standard and Spectral Band, Bluetooth Version and Technology, Supported Satellite System for Location Services (GPS, GLONASS, BDS), Supported Storage Types (SD, eMMC, SATA), Supported Security Platforms (from Fingerprint to Iris Scanner), as well as Supported Memory Type and Speed. That's a lot, right?

This largely explains why some smartphones have a Quad HD display while many don't; Why some handsets support 4K video recording and others don't; And why some phones have Fingerprint Scanner while many don't. The processor dictates all those specs.

To conclude, the processor drives what a smartphone can be - which features it can and can't wield. In many cases, the model of its processor will instantly tell you what exactly a handset can do. As such, a powerful and updated processor should definitely be one of the first things (but not the only thing) that you should consider when purchasing a smartphone in any price category.

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