CPU throttling is the new norm for phones

CPU throttling is the new norm for phones

One of the hallmarks of every annual refresh of any smartphone lineup, particularly the flagship category of smartphones, is upgraded internals. More specifically, yearly SoC upgrades in the mobile phone space have become a well-established trend that is yet to be disturbed. Yet as manufacturers continue to build their new smartphones around the latest SoC, it has become increasingly obvious that performance gains are no longer as tangible as in previous upgrades. Even more concerning, sometimes these marginal performance gains come with substantial penalties. Most notably, regressions in terms of efficiency and thermal performance have become more and more evident over the past couple of years. Unlike in previous editions, where thermal throttling was an avoidable state, now it has become nearly inevitable. Vapor chambers and heat pipes have become more of a necessity rather than a luxurious feature. Even so, some manufacturers opt to limit the phone’s CPU speeds from the get-go, only allowing it to reach its theoretical maximum speeds momentarily when it is absolutely necessary, regardless of whether the phone exhibits any overheating symptoms. So why has it come to this state?

The culprit

There is no doubt that performance gains are the most anticipated aspect of any SoC upgrade, stealing the limelight in any comparison, trailed by the efficiency stats, and then any other features or upgrades. In retrospect, this undivided attention towards seeking performance improvements over anything else more than paid its dividends. However, as mobile phones continue to be powered by more powerful processors, slowly but surely, both manufacturers and customers started to feel the heat (no pun intended), as efficiency and thermals continue to fall down the pecking order.

Many manufacturers have fallen victims to this razor-thin focus of SoC manufacturers on peak performance over anything else. Samsung came under heavy scrutiny, as they were caught red-handed throttling thousands of apps via their proprietary Game-Optimising Service app (GOS) without the end user’s consent. OnePlus also adopted a similar strategy on their most recent OnePlus 10 Pro, limiting the performance of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 inside by default. Unlike Samsung though, OnePlus gave its users the option to disable these performance restrictions. It is obvious that there are a lot of concerns regarding the battery life and heat management if the latest Snapdragon was left to freely ramp up to its purported maximum frequencies.

The extent

Courtesy of Golden Reviewer‘s channel on YouTube, we can have a more detailed overview of how an “optimized” app works under the restraints of Samsung’s enforced throttling policies versus an “unoptimized” one. Looking at the first graph, we can immediately notice a substantially higher average power draw with GOS disabled, constantly peaking at a whopping 11W initially, before more low-level thermal throttling kicks in. Despite that, the phone maintains a noticeably higher power curve. On the other hand, with GOS enabled, the phone’s power draw is restricted to a much lower ceiling, peaking roughly at only 7W even from the start, which is much more sustainable. Even when thermal throttling eventually kicks in, the phone continues to draw less power compared to when GOS is disabled. Looking at the second graph, we can notice that, while the recorded average frame rate is significantly higher with GOS disabled, this higher frame rate is far from sustainable as the frame rate curve of the “unoptimized” app drops down and overlaps with the frame rate curve of the “optimized” app. In essence, with GOD disabled, you are sacrificing a sensible balance between performance and power draw in favor of a short initial burst of pace at the cost of a much worse power profile and similar sustained performance down the line. This is far from a wise decision anyone should side with and, in reality, it seems like Samsung hands were forced to go down this shameful route.

What does the future hold?

As we can all see, CPU throttling has nearly become compulsory for most OEMs dealing with high-end SoCs. As evident in the cases of Samsung and OnePlus, the latter of which was renowned for staking its claim of focusing primarily on performance, throttling the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is a necessity to keep thermals and sustained performance in check. On one hand, it is hardly noticeable to the end-user that the CPU is deprived of reaching its rated maximum frequencies. Yet many people would argue that this is not what they paid their hard-earned money for. In many ways, it can be said that this is almost identical to the predicament of having ludicrously high RAM in the phone while the OEM in question insists on frequently killing off background apps.

Having said that, it is not all dark and gloomy. While Qualcomm is feeling the heat (no pun intended) of its Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 SoC, MediaTek, on the other hand, has been making great strides with its latest SoCs in the Dimensity lineup, namely the Dimensity 8100 and 9000. Unlike its Qualcomm counterpart, MediaTek’s SoCs do not exhibit any symptoms of significant throttling and/or overheating. Despite sharing almost the same setup, one major difference is that MediaTek opted for TSMC’s manufacturing process instead of Samsung’s process, suggesting that the culprit of Qualcomm’s inferior efficiency is Samsung’s fabrication process more so than anything else. Incidentally, Qualcomm’s recently announced 8+ Gen 1 sees Qualcomm moving from Samsung’s manufacturing process to TSMC’s, reaffirming the previously mentioned suspicions that Samsung’s fabrication process is to blame. Interestingly, this whole ordeal has done little to convince Google from moving away from its partnership with Samsung regarding the manufacturing of their own in-built Tensor SoC. Perhaps Samsung can pull off an ace out of its sleeves and prioritize efficiency a bit more with the upcoming Tensor SoC, as should Qualcomm do with its future releases. In the end, there is no point in seeking better performance when it will inevitably be handicapped by such worse thermals. No one buys a Bugatti to drive it like a Fiat.

Featured Image: Counterpoint Research

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