quarta-feira, 2 de julho de 2014

Samsung Releases New Exynos Processors 5422, 5260

Samsung has prepared a series of new Exynos System-on-Chip processors for this year, attending both mid-range and high-end segments. Firstly, there's the Exynos 5 Octa 5422, which is nothing more than a higher-clocked version of the 5420 chip introduced last year (and seen on devices like the Galaxy Note 3, Note 10.1, as well as the Galaxy Tab Pro, Note Pro, and Tab S range of tablets), then there's the first processor in the Exynos 5 Hexa series, the 5260, which, as its name suggests, has a total of six CPU cores. Finally, there's the Exynos 5 Octa 5800, which is basically a 5422 adapted for use in Samsung's Chromebook 2 13.3".

The 5422 is architecturally identical to the Exynos 5420 released last year, only with higher clock speeds. It therefore consists of two CPU clusters working in a big.LITTLE configuration, one being a high-performance cluster consisting of four Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 2.1GHz, and the other being a low-power cluster containing four Cortex-A7s clocked at 1.5GHz (vs 1.9GHz for the A15s and 1.3GHz on the A7s on the Exynos 5420). The GPU is a 6-core Mali-T628 MP6 clocked at 695MHz, which gives it up to about 142 GFLOPS processing power (vs 533MHz and 109 GFLOPS for the 5420). The system is fed by a 32-bit dual-channel LPDDR3-1866 (14.9GB/s bandwidth) memory interface, same as the 5420. The increase in CPU clock speed is hardly enough to yield a noticeable performance increase, but the GPU's higher frequency compared to the Exynos 5420 is definitely a significant jump. Currently the Exynos 5422 is only available in the SM-G900H variant of the Galaxy S5.

Next up is the Exynos 5 Hexa 5260, which is more of a mid-range SoC due to its lower CPU core count and weaker GPU. This processor, much like with the Exynos 5 Octa processors, has two CPU clusters in big.LITTLE configuration. The high-performance cluster consists this time of two Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 1.7GHz, and the low-power cluster is a quad-core Cortex-A7 clocked at 1.3GHz. The GPU is ARM's Mali-T624, probably in a 4-core configuration, but the clock speed is unknown and so is the theoretical compute power. However, it can be noted that the T624 has half as many execution units per core as the T628, so considering that, plus the fact that there are two less cores than inside the T628 MP6 powering the Exynos 5420/5422, you end up with about one third of the processing power at the same clock speed for the T624 MP4 compared to the T628 MP6. Finally, the 5260 SoC is fed by a 32-bit dual-channel LPDDR3-1600 memory interface, offering 12.8GB/s peak bandwidth, which is more than enough for the CPU and GPU. So far, the Exynos 5 Hexa has only made its way to two devices: the Galaxy Note 3 Neo and the Galaxy K Zoom. 

The Exynos 5 Octa 5800 is practically identical to the 5422, except that it has slightly lower clock speeds (2.0GHz vs 2.1GHz for the A15 cluster and 1.3GHz vs 1.5GHz for the A7 cluster) and it's adapted for use in Samsung's Chromebook 2 13.3" (and perhaps other Samsung Chromebooks in the future).

There are also rumors of an upcoming Samsung Exynos chip codenamed 5433, and this chip will allegedly be competitive with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 805 processor, so if that turns out to be true I'd expect a powerful chip like this to debut in one of the most awaited devices of 2014, the Galaxy Note 4. Also, you might have noticed that all of the new processors discussed here have 32-bit CPUs, while the rest of the mobile SoC market it slowly transitioning to 64-bit, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Exynos 5433 ends up being a 64-bit CPU, perhaps a Cortex-A57/53 big.LITTLE combo. 

terça-feira, 1 de julho de 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review

Microsoft's Surface range of tablets were never successful enough to make a big impression in the tablet market, and this is mostly attributed to the fact that the Surface tablets tried to replace both your tablet and your laptop, and thus ended up failing at replacing either properly. Now Microsoft is upping its game with the recently announced Surface Pro 3, by choosing to make it much closer to a work-oriented PC. But by doing so, Microsoft sacrificed the portability factor which benefited the previous Surface tablets' use as a tablet for entertainment. Whether Microsoft's decision to make the Surface Pro 3 more laptop than tablet was a good one or a bad one isn't yet clear, but with a higher resolution screen, better cameras, and a considerably slimmer body, the Surface Pro 3 is definitely a better device overall than its predecessor. 

Since it boasts a much larger screen than previous Surface tablets (12" compared to 10.6"), the Surface Pro 3's dimensions are inevitably larger, even though the size difference was slightly compensated with slimmer bezels on the Pro 3. Measuring 292.1 x 201.4 x 9.1mm, it's far from an ultra portable tablet. In fact, it's about the same size as Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 tablet (295.6 x 203.9 x 8mm), which evidently has a slightly larger 12.2" screen. The Note Pro 12.2 is significantly thinner, but then again, the Note Pro 12.2 doesn't have an Intel Core CPU, and nor does it run full Windows 8.1. In fact, the Surface Pro 3 is a very thin tablet considering the hardware it packs. It also weighs 800g, which, again, is pretty light for a 12-inch tablet with an Intel Core processor. In comparison, the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 weighs 750g.

The back of the Surface Pro 3 is made from the same VaporMg magnesium alloy construction seen in all other Surface tablets, but like with the Surface 2 it has a light-silver colored finish. This makes the tablet very sturdy, and it also looks very premium. The kickstand which has always been unique to the Surface line is back, but it's much improved. The first-gen surface's kickstand had a single 22-degree angle, which didn't make it ideal for many usage cases. The second generation had two angles, 22-degree and 45-degree. Now with the Surface Pro 3, the kickstand can open to any degree between the initial 22-degree stage and the 150-degree limit, making it far more versatile than its predecessors.

The Surface Pro 3 also features improved cameras: two 5MP units on the front and back of the device. the high-res front-facing camera makes the Pro 3 a very good device for video conferencing. As for the rear-facing camera: given that a 10-inch tablet is already very awkward for taking pictures, imagine how doing that with a 12-inch tablet would look like! In any case, it's there, and it's decent enough for a tablet.

The Surface Pro 3 marks the first upgrade in the display department since the original Surface Pro. It's bigger, has a higher resolution and a much more interesting aspect ratio. The 12-inch size offers much more screen real estate than the previous Surface Pros' 10.6" displays, with the only trade-off that the tablet becomes a bit too large to be considered a portable tablet. The resolution has been upgraded from 1920 x 1080 to 2160 x 1440, and the screen aspect ratio is now 3:2, which makes the screen less wide and taller (in other words, squarer) than the usual 16:9 Windows tablets, including the Surface Pro and Pro 2. As with the other Surface tablets, the Pro 3 uses Microsoft's ClearType technology, which fuses the display layers into a single layer, the benefit of that being less screen reflectivity and therefore better sunlight contrast ratio.

Microsoft has made the right choices with the Pro 3's display. The larger size makes its use as a productivity machine as well as a fully-fledged laptop replacement much more feasible, and the increased resolution is also a great improvement. Like I said before, increasing the screen size makes it more suitable for a laptop replacement than a proper media consumption tablet, but this compromise is probably the right one to make. 

The Surface Pro 3 may not look like it, due to its thin chassis, but it packs some very powerful hardware inside it. Like its predecessors, it's equipped with Intel Core processors, in this case, the highly power-efficient 4th-gen parts. You can buy the Pro 3 with a Core i3, a Core i5 or even a Core i7 processor inside, depending on how much you're willing to pay. The following table shows the different processor/RAM configurations and their respective price

 Price   $799   $999   $1,299  $1,549   $1,949 
 CPU   Intel Core-i3 4020Y
(2 Cores/4 Threads @ 1.5GHz)
 Intel Core-i5 4300U
(2 Cores/4 Threads @ 1.9GHz base/2.9GHz Turbo)
 Intel Core-i5 4300U
(2 Cores/4 Threads @ 1.9GHz base/2.9GHz Turbo) 
 Intel Core-i7 4650U
(2 Cores/4 Threads @ 2.7GHz base/3.3GHz Turbo)
 Intel Core-i7 4650U
(2 Cores/4 Threads @ 2.7GHz base/3.3GHz Turbo)
 GPU   Intel HD 4200 @ 200MHz base/850MHZ Turbo  Intel HD 4400 @ 200MHz base/1.1GHz Turbo  Intel HD 4400 @ 200MHz base/1.1GHz Turbo  Intel HD 5000 @ 200MHz base/1.1GHz Turbo  Intel HD 5000 @ 200MHz base/1.1GHz Turbo
 Max TDP  11.5W  15W  15W  15W  15W
 RAM   4 GB  4 GB  8 GB  8 GB  8 GB

For the tablet form factor even the Core i3 is already a very good processor and should be fine for most basic tasks. I'd say that the Core i7 model is a bit overkill for a tablet unless you want to use it for gaming or for more intense tasks. All Surface Pro 3 variants have an internal fan for cooling, but they're generally quiet and therefore shouldn't be an inconvenience. However, logically the higher CPU bins, especially the Core i7 model, are more likely to make the fan run faster and noisier, as well as use up battery faster, as all Surface Pro 3 models have the same 42Wh battery. Taking heat dissipation, fan noise, battery life and performance in consideration, I consider the Core-i5 model the ideal compromise between these variables, since it's fast and at the same time not too power hungry. 

By the way, Microsoft claims 9 hours of continuous web browsing for the Surface Pro 3, which is very good for a tablet with this hardware, although I'm not sure how the different CPU bins will vary in terms of battery life.

As with other Surface Pros, the Pro 3 comes with a digital pen stylus. This time however, it's not a Wacom digitizer, which means there are less pressure sensitivity levels (256 in the Pro 3 vs 1024 in the previous Surface Pros), but the new NTrig technology allows for some nifty software features. As usual, there's no place on the tablet's body to store the Surface Pen inside. The Surface Pro 3's new 3:2 screen aspect ratio combines very well with the stylus, as in portrait mode, the screen's proportions make it look rather like a 12" drawing pad.

Pricing and Conclusion

Microsoft is offering the Surface Pro 3 in a variety of different processor/RAM/storage options. The entry-level model has a Core-i3 CPU, 4 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD drive and costs $799. Then there's a Core-i5 model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD storage, which goes for $999 and another Core-i5 model, but with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD, costing $1,299. Then there's a Core-i7 model with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD which costs $1,549 and finally there's the most expensive Core-i7 model with 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of SSD storage, which costs $1,949. The Touch Cover for the Surface Pro 3 is sold separately, and costs $129. Microsoft should really have this keyboard bundled with the tablet, as the tablet itself is already very expensive, and like I said before, the Pro 3 is more of a work-oriented laptop replacement than a media consumption tablet, and in order for it to do what it does best, that is, replace your laptop, it needs the keyboard cover.

The first two Surface Pros tried to be both a laptop and a tablet, but failed at being any of the two. Now with the Surface Pro 3, it's a device that excels in productivity tasks, therefore making itself a worthy laptop replacement, and is at least usable as a tablet, but sacrifices the portability factor that is why people usually buy tablets in the first place. So while it is a compromise, it's the best one Microsoft could've made.

So what is the verdict on the Surface Pro 3? Well, it has the screen real estate, the hardware, software, and a keyboard cover to fully replace your laptop, and at the same time it's also more portable than any ultrabook out there, probably has more battery life than most of them, and can still double as a tablet, albeit a very large one. Wrap that up with a versatile kickstand, a high-res screen, a chassis that may just the the thinnest to sport an Intel Core CPU and an improved stylus and you have just about one of the best tablet-laptop hybrid devices so far, and most certainly the best Surface tablet ever released.