Let’s Check In on the State of iPhone and Android CPU Performance

Jerry Hildenbrand had an eye-opening piece at Android Central last month — “The Cheapest iPhone Has a More Powerful Processor Than the Most Expensive Android Phone”:1

I expect that some people are going to tell me about single thread versus multi-threaded performance and how the A13 GPU isn’t that great or how iPhones have much lower resolution screens so the chips don’t have to work as hard. All this is true, but another thing is true: the A13 is a stronger chip than the Snapdragon 865 for daily use in every category — we’ve seen this applied in real life in the iPhone 11 already.

Apple’s chip lead over Qualcomm has, if anything, widened, not narrowed. Not only do Apple’s high-end phones far outperform Android flagships, now even Apple’s $400 iPhone SE does. This is a remarkable state of affairs, and a deeply inconvenient truth for Android fans (not to mention Android handset makers). Geekbench benchmarks peg the A13 single-threaded performance at a little more than 1.5x that of the Snapdragon 865, and about 1.8x that of the Snapdragon 855 — the chip that powers most flagship Android phones still on the market, including Google’s Pixel 4.

I mention this state of affairs periodically, and when I do, I usually emphasize that CPU performance isn’t everything. For most people, it shouldn’t be the main thing. Everyone wants a phone that’s fast, but very few actually need a phone that is the fastest.

But one gets the feeling that if these performance tables were turned, you’d hear a lot more about the relative benchmarks of Android vs. iOS devices from Android-focused websites than we do now. Because it’s not just that Apple’s new $400 iPhone SE offers faster performance than any Android phone money can buy, but that the two-and-a-half-year-old iPhone 8 has better single-threaded performance than any Android phone today — and the iPhone 8 was the phone Apple discontinued for the new $400 iPhone SE. Apple discontinued an iPhone that, if it were an Android phone, would be the fastest in single-threaded performance on the market today.

And on the flip side, what do you get for $400 in Androidtown? Amazon sells the Motorola Moto Z4 for $500. Let’s just spot the Android side $100. The Moto Z4’s single-threaded Geekbench 5 score is about 500. That falls short of an iPhone 6S, a phone from 2015.

I touched on this dynamic back in September 2017, in my thoughts on Apple’s announcement of the iPhone X:

You can’t bring this up in public without a certain segment of Android fans losing their goddamn minds over it. “I thought specs don’t matter?” they say, and point to articles I (or whoever else brings this up) wrote in the past arguing that specs aren’t the only thing that matters. Here’s the thing. I would still want to use an iPhone if Apple were using off-the-shelf Snapdragon processors and Samsung were the company producing these proprietary A-series systems-on-a-chip. It’s the same reason I remained a Mac user even during the years when Mac CPUs were hopelessly behind Intel’s in performance. For me, it’s the overall experience that matters, and that’s largely defined by the software platform.

But Samsung isn’t the company with the proprietary chips that blow away the industry commodity chips, Apple is. So iPhone users get the best in both regards: they get the iOS experience and Apple-designed hardware, and they get the vastly superior CPU and GPU. And Android users who want industry-leading performance are shit out of luck. This is unprecedented in computing history. Windows users who want the best CPUs have always had that option. Android users don’t, because the best chips, by far, are Apple’s, and they’re proprietary.

Oh, and if the tables were turned, and it were Qualcomm’s chips that were 3–5 years ahead of everyone else in performance, it’s quite likely that Apple would just buy chips from Qualcomm and the iPhones in that alternative universe would still have industry-leading performance — they’d just be on par with flagship Android phones. What makes our actual situation unprecedented in personal computing history isn’t that one company has maintained a decade-long CPU performance edge over the rest of the industry, but that that one company is keeping those chips exclusively for its own devices.

  1. As you might expect, you do not want to miss the comments on this one. ↩︎