MediaTek vs Snapdragon: Everything you should know about the two companies

A Qualcomm Snapdragon render.

Huawei and Samsung are two of the only Android manufacturers regularly producing in-house processors. Everyone else turns to Qualcomm and MediaTek for their mobile chip needs.

The two companies have been the dominant third-party chipset providers for several years now, following the withdrawal of players like Texas Instruments, Intel, and ST-Ericsson’s NovaThor.

We’ve put together a handy primer on the MediaTek vs Qualcomm, covering their differences and reasons why a company would opt for one or the other.

CPU technology

The Snapdragon 845 chipset.

When it comes to the all-important CPUs, Qualcomm has a history of creating its own Kryo cores. Since 2017, however, the company has settled on semi-custom designs (dubbed Kryo Gold or Kryo Silver). These designs are based on standard Arm CPU cores, with a few tweaks for power consumption and performance.

Meanwhile, MediaTek uses standard Arm CPU cores for its processors, without modifying them to the same degree as Qualcomm.

Qualcomm uses the latest and greatest Arm CPU cores whenever they’re available, as is the case with the new Snapdragon 675. MediaTek hasn’t used Arm’s latest cores yet (Cortex-A76, A75, and A55), content to use legacy cores for now.

The long and short of it is Qualcomm and MediaTek both use the same CPU cores, but Qualcomm tends to adopt new cores at a faster pace.

GPUs: Qualcomm’s secret weapon?

GPUs are Qualcomm’s biggest advantage, thanks to its secretive Adreno graphics technology. This was borne out of Qualcomm’s acquisition of AMD’s handheld graphics chip business (Adreno is an anagram of Radeon, AMD’s graphics brand).

Arm’s Adreno GPUs recently trumped Arm’s Mali GPUs in benchmarks — just compare graphics benchmarks of the Qualcomm-powered Galaxy S9 and its Exynos-powered variant (which uses Arm GPU tech).

Manufacturers like Samsung and Huawei generally opt to simply use more Arm Mali GPU core to reduce the gap to Qualcomm’s hardware.

Arm’s new Mali-G76 GPU is a big upgrade, in theory targetting laptop-class performance. Qualcomm obviously won’t be standing still, so we look forward to the company’s next flagship chip announcements in December.

Machine learning

A MediaTek Helio P60 sign.

Qualcomm has been harnessing its Hexagon digital signal processor (DSP) for machine learning tasks in recent years. The DSP usually handles tasks related to audio, photography, and connectivity, but the company has tuned the chip (along with its CPU and GPU) for machine learning. In other words, the company doesn’t have a dedicated AI chip in the same way Apple and Huawei has, but it seems to do the job well.

The top-end Hexagon 685 DSP is available on the likes of the Snapdragon 845, Snapdragon 710, Snapdragon 670, and the Snapdragon 675. So tasks like image recognition and other forms of offline inference should get a boost on phones with these chips.

MediaTek, on the other hand, has introduced a dedicated AI processing unit (APU) to mid-range phones with the launch of the Helio P60 chipset. The APU brings features like smart scene recognition, better facial recognition, and more to mid-range phones.

Developer support and updates

If you’re planning to flash a new ROM on your phone, Qualcomm-equipped phones have traditionally been the go-to option. MediaTek phones gained a poor reputation several years ago for developer support (or the lack thereof) compared to Qualcomm. The issue seems to revolve around the company’s policy for releasing source code, which isn’t quite as straightforward as the U.S. chipmaker.

MediaTek phones also have a reputation for tardy or missing system updates. Then again, scores of low-end brands have traditionally used their chips, and often lack the resources to update their phones in the first place. It’s not necessarily the chipmaker’s fault if a MediaTek-powered phone doesn’t get updated.

Editor’s Pick

The firm has taken steps to turn things around though, joining the GMS Express initiative a year ago, which requires shipping a more complete version of Android, plus several Google apps, to partners (rather than the bare minimum AOSP build). This has made some hope MediaTek partners will start bringing updates to consumers quicker.

Google’s Project Treble initiative should also result in faster updates for both Qualcomm and MediaTek devices. Project Treble effectively separates a phone’s hardware and software layers so that software (Android) updates won’t affect the hardware.

We’ve also seen Nokia/HMD deliver updates to some of its MediaTek-equipped phones, such as the Nokia 3 and 3.1. The chipmaker clearly isn’t a lost cause for updates, but Qualcomm is still the go-to option for updates, and crucially, ROM development.

Qualcomm and MediaTek devices

The front of the Meizu Pro 7 Plus.

MediaTek is a firm fixture in the entry-level tier, with chips in phones like the Nokia 1, Nokia 3 and 3.1, and Redmi 6 and 6A. In fact, the company’s new low-end Helio A22 and P22 chips are smaller than Qualcomm’s counterparts, which should result in better endurance on paper.

Qualcomm still leans on aging chips like the Snapdragon 212 and Snapdragon 425 for its entry-level needs. The company’s new Snapdragon 429 and Snapdragon 439 processors might give its presence in the space a shot in the arm.

The flagship level is utterly dominated by Qualcomm and its Snapdragon 800 series of chips (Snapdragon 835 and 845). Mediatek is taking a break from flagship chipsets, following the release of its Helio X30 flagship processor last year. Unfortunately the X30 only made it into the Meizu Pro 7 Plus (seen above), while Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 powered almost every other top-shelf device. If you’re buying a flagship phone, Snapdragon is the default chipset.

The mid-range sees more of a mix, as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400, 600, and 700 series edge out the Helio P60 and MT6750 range. Popular P60 and MT6750 phones include the Nokia 5.1 Plus, Realme 1, Oppo F9, LG Q7, and LG X Power 2. Meanwhile, prominent mid-range phones with Qualcomm chips include the Nokia 7 Plus, Xiaomi Mi A2, Xiaomi Redmi Note 5, and Realme 2 Pro. For the most part, the Snapdragon chips are the choice for many big-name mid-range phones.

So, which one is better?

Ultimately, there’s far more to buying a smartphone than which chipset it uses. Would you buy a powerful phone with no features, or a mid-range phone with a great camera, water resistance, and a headphone jack?

If you’re planning to tinker with your phone’s inner workings or want a proper flagship phone, the choice is already made for you (Qualcomm). The mid-range bracket is murkier though, as MediaTek’s Helio P60 and Qualcomm’s popular Snapdragon 660 are similarly powerful, though Qualcomm’s newest 600-series chips blow the Helio P60 out of the water.

Editor’s Pick

It’s the entry-level category where MediaTek has an advantage, thanks to the Helio A22 and P22 series. Offering newer, smaller chips than Qualcomm’s low-end efforts (which should result in better efficiency on paper), the new processors also deliver Bluetooth 5, a rarity at this price-point.

MediaTek also generally undercuts Qualcomm’s prices, which doesn’t guarantee a MediaTek phone will be cheaper, but opens the possibility.

Looking for a comprehensive guide to MediaTek chips? Read our rundown over here. We’ve also got a guide to Qualcomm’s recent Snapdragon chips, available by clicking here.

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