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Why don't phone makers use last year's high-end chips in budget phones?

Everybody loves budget-friendly phones that are still pretty high-end devices. Motorola, ZTE, and other companies have delivered some great products at great prices, and for many, it's crazy to spend almost $1,000 to buy the best from Google or Samsung. These "budget" phones can do everything they want them to do at considerable savings. But there's one question a lot of folks have about the parts that make these phones go: why use "lesser" chipsets instead of just using last generation's flagship chips?

We'll take the Moto X4 and use it as an example here. It ships with a $399 price and a Snapdragon 630. Both of those are definitely on the budget side of the line. So why didn't Moto keep the price, but use a Snapdragon 820 or 821 instead of the brand-new Snapdragon 630?

Because the Snapdragon 630 is better than the Snapdragon 821 in several key areas, and they are pretty important ones.

No, we're not talking about performance in the way you might be thinking. The Snapdragon 821 with its Kryo cores and Adreno 530 GPU will run rings around the 630's Cortex-A53 cores and Adreno 508 GPU when doing intensive things like gaming or VR. But there's more to making a great chip for a great phone. A lot more.

Getting connected in 2017

This is the most important reason why a company like Motorola/Lenovo doesn't want to use a Snapdragon chip designed in 2015 inside a phone sold at the end of 2017.

These are phones. Getting connected and staying connected is kind of important.

The Snapdragon 630 has Qualcomm's X12 Modem, which is the same LTE package that was in the high-end 821. That means LTE speeds up to 600 Mbps, LTE Cat 12 (downlink)/13 (uplink), 3 x 20 MHz carrier aggregation and 256 QAM. This all translates into real-world LTE speeds in the 200-250 Mbps right now, and those will climb as carrier infrastructure is updated further. That's a good thing.

Also new to the 600 platform is 2x2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi. That means things like solid-concrete walls or copper plumbing pipes won't interfere with your Wi-Fi signal as much and you'll have a faster connection even further away. This means more than double the data throughput from the previous 600 series chipsets.

New chips can get new tech that didn't exist last year.

In addition, the Snapdragon 630 supports wireless tech the Snapdragon 821 doesn't. Things like Bluetooth 5 which means better support for the next-gen IoT (internet of things) as well as advances in current products. Or advanced RF front-end support through Qualcomm's TruSignal adaptive antenna that now works with carrier aggregation, which translates into a better signal further from the cell tower.

There's even a new location engine that supports the newest constellations (think satellite clusters) like QZSS and SBAS which will not only make finding your location faster and more accurate but also provide satellite-based augmentation that factors in things like clock drift and microwave signal ionospheric delay. Science!

The Snapdragon 630 makes for a better portable handheld wireless device than the Snapdragon 821 does.

But wait, there's more!

The Snapdragon 630 is also a modern chipset when it comes to input and output. There is full support for Quick Charge 4.0, USB Type-C and USB 3.1. Faster data connection and the now-universal socket are awesome, and so is support for all of the latest fast-charging methods. Qualcomm's All-Ways Aware sensor hub package means you'll use a lot less power when getting data from things like the gyroscope because it can run independently from the main CPU cores. And hardware-based security for things like biometrics means your data will be more secure and its data-entry (the act of scanning your finger or face or iris) is faster and more accurate.

Last but not least are the camera capabilities. A good camera has become one of the most important features for many consumers, and the Snapdragon 630 offers support for the second-generation Spectra ISP (image signal processor) system. This supports the fancy computational photography we saw with the Google Pixel in 2016 as well as instant focus and zero shutter lag from the internal hardware.

Support is important, too. We depend on the company who made our phone for support, and it depends on the company who made the components.

The 630 also includes some of the standard performance-enhancing things we usually think of like a faster clock rate in the CPU cores and better 3D rendering from a new GPU when compared to the previous 600 series chipsets. The Snapdragon 630 is not only a better chip than last years 625 was, but it's also a better chip than last year's Snapdragon 821 was.

Remember, we just used the Moto X4 and its Snapdragon 630 as an example. These same types of upgrades are also present on all new chips compared to older models. Along with things like better battery life and longer OEM support, this is why companies making our phones use the latest and greatest even in their inexpensive models. And we should be glad that they do!

What about updates?

That's another win in favor of the Snapdragon 630: Qualcomm supports its chips for a finite amount of time, which means that a budget chip from 2017 is likely to be updated for much longer than a more powerful chip from 2016.

Of course, it's up to the phone manufacturer to actually follow through with those updates, but Qualcomm and other chip vendors like Broadcom are integral to this process, as they facilitate driver upgrades and other important improvements to prepare phones for a new Android platform update. It's improving this cooperation that Google had in mind when it announced and implemented Project Treble alongside Android O earlier this year.

It's the price, stupid!

There's another factor that keeps budget phones with "budget" chips instead of last year's flagships: price. Qualcomm licenses a bunch of technology to companies with its Snapdragon processors, and the 800-series is chock-full of features, sensors and optimizations. The cheaper chips in the Snapdragon 600- and 400-series don't always share those same top-shelf features, so phone companies are more likely to choose them over last year's flagship chips, which still likely carry a higher price tag.

Your thoughts

What do you think about all of this? Are you more inclined to buy a Galaxy S7 over a Moto X4? Let us know in the comments!

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • I disagree it has anything to do with features. Let's be honest, the 630, per instance, supports a bunch of high-end features that won't be used by budget consumers. It packs a lot of future proofing that they won't need either. But if you slapped a 821 on that thing it would actually be a good match for the S8/Pixel 2 and other high-end devices (the 835 is only around 15% faster). No consumer would rather get a mid-end SoC that plays games kind badly and is laggier if there was an option to basically get the last year flagship. The only deciding factor here is pricing. It is much cheaper than the older high-end SoC.
  • The 835 may only be ~15% faster than the 821, but it's also hugely more efficient. And the same is true of the 630. And game performance isn't really an issue... Which do you think these normal folks will care about more, having a budget phone that benchmarks within 20,000 points of the pixel 2 or one where the battery lasts all day? And pricing is important, we could be talking the difference between a $399 phone and a $449 phone. There's also the support issue, but that's arguable being that budget devices often don't get the support they deserve anyway.
  • I think part of it would be that last year's flagships already have last year's flagships processor. You could buy a used pixel 2 for the same as most budget phones if performance is really the most important thing for you.
  • Not all consumers prioritize game performance, just an FYI. Not to mention, older flagships can lag quite a bit too, especially during gaming. My Nexus 6p is basically incapable of handling Clash Royale.
  • It is also 3+ years old....
  • Two years old.
  • It's probably due to the way the 810 had thermal issues and throttled.
  • Agreed. Yes the 630 may support things like faster LTE etc.... But in the future, when tech like ultrafast LTE is finally mainstream, the apps and OS's of that future will be heavier, more complex and require more CPU and GPU horsepower to run, rendering the 630's CPU/GPU too slow to provide a good user experience. On the flipside, a snapdragon 835 should be able to handle the apps and OS's that will exist 2 years from now, and be able to handle them at a speed that's acceptable for a 2019 mid range phone.
  • Good to have info from someone who came from the future.
  • That doesn't even make sense, why would faster data speeds result in more CPU intense tasks.
  • Have to agree. All the "better features" like theoretically getting 200Mbps from a carrier (yeah, that's going to happen) or even BT5.0 would be pretty much non-events. A faster processor would be noticed every day.
  • Depends on what you value, I'd take the 820 as it trumps on CPU/GPU speed and that's what matters to me. My LTE speed is already more than fast enough to burn through my 5GB monthly allowance, BT5 isn't implemented yet and my wifi speeds are more than good enough.
  • Currently own a "reconditioned" T-Mobile Galaxy Note 5. This has been upgraded to utilize T-Mobile's new spectrum addition.
    Cost was about same as lower current chipset iterations.
    IMO, people would be better off buying last years flagship vs current lower tier versions.
    Depending of usage, length of service this works for me.
  • Did you change the modem? That's the only way to make use of some of the new network features
  • Me? ha, no.
    If you look on T-M website or do a search you'll notice some T-M branded Galaxy Note 5's were modified to use believe 600[?] band.
    I saw refurbished Note 5's on sale and impulse bought. Didn't have a clue.
    When I booted up or did a search ...don't remember, was notified mine was modified.
    Have noticed ~5 -dBm improvement. Not tremendous but noteworthy.
    using a T-M mvno so if I change the access point to T-M get the better signal.
    Until they throw me off anyway.
    God protects the ignorant I guess.
  • The modem in the Note 5 is part of the SOC so there would be no way to change it without changing out the whole SOC. Also, the SOC isn't modular, pulling it would be nearly impossible and upgrading it would require a custom rom with drivers for the new SOC, an expense not even Samsung can afford to make let alone T-mobile.
  • Searched for link to article I saw listing capable devices. now I can't find it. figures.
    Last device listed was a reconditioned Galaxy Note 5.
    Weird considering the Note 8 isn't capable.
    Believe it's band 71 but don't know how to check my phone for it.
  • Excellent article, pretty much covered everything. I noticed a small typo, you wrote Kyro rather than Kryo when discussing the 821 core architecture :p
  • TY Edit: I had to turn my spell checker off to type Kryo lol. Stupid thing
  • Jerry
    Another beautifully written and informative article. You're the best. Kudos!
  • I do a little bit of gaming and no VR. I'm interested. Very. A chipset that will be fast, great receiving capabilities, power efficient and handle graphics maybe similar to the S7 edge - with great camera capabilities - you have my attention. I use my phone for basic productivity - office apps, communication etc and alot for traveling (map usage etc.) So connectivity is - very - important. As phone prices head north of $1000, some sort of sensibility has to come into play. And this 'style' of chipset in Android One phones - or similar - I think are going to be a major draw in the phone market. I love being on the cutting edge - and the new mid range phones such as the Android One phones will be my fall back option when I decide I don't need the most expensive phone anymore. I was going to say when I don't need a premium phone - but a 630 chipset with the right hardware - could still be a desirable premium mid-range phone...
  • Interesting article; good details and a lot to think about. I wonder how the feature differences b/w the more modern but slower chips and older power chips align w/ mid-range phone buyers' expectations. Which chip package wld these consumers pick if they knew AND cared about the differences?
  • Good question. I imagine price is the first factor. After that, it would depend on what any salesperson had to say. I can see telling some people how this phone has a better network connection as an incentive to buy while telling other people that this other phone is better for playing games.
  • Price was the first factor for me, and then network connectivity. But here's a factor that a lot of people don't think about with the SD 625 or 630... You can't forget that Moto is running almost pure Android so it doesn't need super, super power like the SD 835. Do me a favor Jerry, run a S8 and a Moto G S5 Plus (4 gig ram/64 gig mem) in a side-by-side comparison. I have and I was quite surprised!
  • Good write up..and I must say this is a subject I've always wondered about.
  • Umm nobody mentioned the lg g6. I don't think anyone would take a mid-range phone over it, and yet it has a sd 821.
  • Just bought one (LG G6) a few weeks ago.
    Great phone and outperforms some with a SD835. It uses a heat pipe to keep the 821 cool.
  • There was a topic worded exactly like this on r/Android about 3 weeks ago.
    On-topic: It may have to do with Qualcomms 2 year driver update policy.
  • Great article, my biggest concern with budget smartphones is the upgrade probability, and I don't just mean OS upgrades, I'm talking about security updates. While Project Treble is a great start, security updates is where Google has to take over from the manufacturers. While you can lead a horse to water, you can't make that horse drink, and unfortunately, IMO not every manufacturer puts the same priority on pushing out regular security updates. I suspect that budget phones are at the end of the line when it comes to providing regular security updates.
  • I think that was the purpose of Android One phones. Lightweight Android operating system with frequent security updates - these were to come from the OEM, not Google - I guess some form of history should prove whether that true or not...
  • Super great article Jerry!! I have been singing the Praises of the Moto G5(S) Plus for months!! There are a lot of people like me that just don't need all that "Super Premium" crap and will not spend over $500 for ANY phone. (Unless it had dinner waiting for me and a bath drawn). To me I don't care if a phone was over 6 in, it's still too small . I would still rather use my Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 for any social media, email, reading, or watching videos!! Kudos to you.
  • I think it could also have to do with the cost of fabrication processes too. The process of making a series of chips kind of changes as time goes. A certain way of fabricating the line of chips (800 series, 600 series, 400 series etc) for 2015-2016 might be improved (economically and maybe on efficiency of fabricating process too) for 2016-2017 resulting in limited to possibly unavailability of the previous period top-end chips.
  • Phone companies do use last year's top-end SoCs in less-than-flagship phones, by selling last year's flagships at lower prices. I'd like to see more upper/mid level phones with upper/mid level SoCs like SD 652/653/660 but between developing a whole new upper/mid level phone or just selling last year's flagship at a discount, most of the phone manufacturers keep selling last year's flagship. Honestly though, an upper/mid level phone that costs $400-500 like the Moto X4 or Z Play should have an upper/mid level SoC, not the same tier of SoC of phones in the $200-300 range.
  • Great article. I always wondered why older SOCs weren't used much or with little fanfare, then I realized that if you stuck a flagship SOC in a midrange device, it would be way too much overkill. While my Z2 Play is pushing out FHD 1080p the Pixel is QHD with a bunch of bells and whistles like camera enhancements that I'd never want or care about enough to cough up $300 extra bucks for. Sure, all that extra processing power would help smooth out the rare occasion when switching an app slows me to a crawl or play some specialized game no one knows or cares about. I just love the great battery life I get and the great performance when I need it.
  • Oblivious before I read this article. I hadn't realized that the 630 was an advanced mid range chip the way it is. I'm shocked that the 821/820 doesn't have the tech that this 630 has.
  • Utter bullshit. The number of users accessing these theoretical top speeds of modems vs users that would benefit from the speeds of SD 820/821 is not a serious comparison. The reason high end chips from last generation are not used is purely planned obsolescence. Nothing more.
  • Good read. Thanks, Jerry!
  • I'm running a G5. Bought it in February for $269, new in the box unlocked. There is simply NO phone you can buy new at that price point to touch it. At your $399, you can start talking s7's and Pixels. My belief changed with this phone, you are foolish to pay full retail for a new phone.
    I also agree, you don't know that mid-range phones are going to be updated.... At all. What good is support for things your phone will never receive because it never gets an update.
    Look at your typical cell customer, they want to browse the web, get on social media, and talk and text. They don't play graphic intensive games or use VR. They do however stream video. Why would this customer drop $400 on this year's midranger when they can get last year's flagship for less. Not to mention it's a flagship, nobody shows off their Samsung J-series phone.