To Worry or Not to Worry: The SD810, an M9 and Throttling
The HTC One M9 has been the center of buzz lately, as the fans eager for a revolution were somewhat disappointed at what resembled a mere evolution. What’s more, early reports surrounding the camera – the most important bullet point in HTC’s to-do list – had not been as satisfactory as their unveiling event had originally touted. While the M9 promised great software features such as contextual homescreens and a complex theme-engine, the camera concerns remained strong.
But the devices tested at MWC 2015 were demo units for the Barcelona unveiling event, and not the final retail device, meaning that HTC had the time needed to address the camera.
The second controversial bit was one that hit enthusiasts in the gut: performance. The Snapdragon 810 found inside the M9 immediately raised concerns in the blogosphere, given that in the past few months the rumors surrounding thermal issues in this chipset had gained a lot of traction and reach. While tests helped us believe that these complaints should be rendered a myth, the only actual device with a Snapdragon 810 was the G Flex 2 which was notorious for its performance issues caused by severe throttling. So the Qualcomm chipset was still under watch from skeptics who wanted the best out of their processors.
These claims were said to be, both by HTC and HTC defendants, consequences of unfinished software builds featured in demo and test units – including some of those that the reporters and reviewers got their hands on. We argued in favor of HTC’s claims, as they had said that the problems would be resolved in a finished build. We stressed on the fact that software updates can indeed fix camera performance, and that it also could be an effective solution to fixing UI and real-world performance through several tweaks ranging from kernel optimizations to intelligent frequency scaling. The embargo is now lifted, reviews are out, and we now know that HTC seems to have tackled the overheating outcries – but perhaps not in the way we all would have wanted.
Look on my works, ye Mighty…
The HTC M9 was set to release in Taiwan on March 16th, but the release date was pushed back. With this extra time, HTC could get extra breathing room to approach the corrected release that would have the issues fixed in a new firmware build. The device is now out in said country and there’s a few brand-new comments and reviews going around regarding the performance in the release-ready device. Once more we must state that benchmarks are not a measure of real-world experience, and a good benchmark score does not necessarily mean a good UX – in contrast , neither does a low(er) score.
Initial looks at the device (you might want to translate it) told us that the benchmark scores have gone down dramatically in the firmware revision. What was once a modest 55,000 score on AnTuTu now seems to settle under 48,000. The obvious implication of such a differential is that there is an artificial limit to the peak performance, put forth to prevent it from overheating. Rather than have the device throttle from the heat, the bar is lower to prevent the high temperatures that were recorded in previous tests (up to 55.4°C or 131.72°F).
Furthermore, additional reviews from technical sites like AnandTech confirm the initial concerns regarding the Snapdragon 810’s confined performance. While the original developer device that was tested months ago worked great, the reality of the Snapdragon 810 enclosed in tight-fitted phones seems to have intense constraints to overcome the high temperatures. The result is a cap on core frequency of 1.6GHz rather than the rated 2.0GHz, and this means that while the device does great on plenty of tests, the once-promised performance is nowhere to be seen. The Adreno 430 found inside also only saw “minimal improvements”, and ultimately, AnandTech’s conclusion is that they “can’t help but feel that Snapdragon 805 ends up being a better choice than Snapdragon 810 for a flagship smartphone at this time”. Was this the right move?
HTC can’t break the laws of physics, and be it because of the processor or the tight fit of the crowded internals, there was ultimately not much that could have been done to keep both peak performance high and peak temperature low. That being said, we still don’t have extensive proof of real-world performance and the remaining in-depth analysis from technical sites (like AnandTech’s second review part) could reveal different, more positive results (or at least explain their positive aspects). But this cap on the performance of the phone does raise up quite some concerns for those who want to make a purchase.
We had originally contrasted the synthetic benchmark performance of the S6 and the M9, based of Mobile World Congress demo units and their corresponding firmware builds at the time. Both of these devices showed promising AnTuTu scores, but the S6 managed to output vastly superior results: while the M9 scored around 55,000 the Exynos-featuring S6 could break the 70,000 barrier. These numbers tell us little about many real-world performance aspects, but as far as crunching goes, the M9 (and consequently, the Snapdragon 810) seemed to have been left behind at the time, meaning Samsung’s Exynos as well as their new memory solutions have done a better job than the M9’s internals.
What seems to be shocking about this new score is that it is in-line with what the older generation Snapdragon 805 chipset could offer: for example, a Note 4 out-of-the box typically scores around that much. I froze the bloat software on mine, and without any other adulteries I was able to score close to 51,000. The phone still runs TouchWiz, and there’s still lag in the recents button, so the number doesn’t mean much to my user experience. But the fact that a phone with a much higher resolution screen running KitKat could outscore this device is somewhat perplexing. Other benchmarks do show the M9 pushing out best-of-the-line numbers, but the improvements are nowhere near as high as we the chipset’s promises should have reflected.
Devices like the Nexus 6, or the very same Note 4 on Lollipop, can actually match the original MWC 2015 scores anyway. What’s more, it seems like the device still gets noticeably warm when doing tasks like gaming. That being said, does it matter?
Theory, not life
The M8 was one of the smoothest devices Android had the pleasure of being on. To this day I am impressed with its speed when I get to play with one, even retail stores’ worn-out display units. The M8 was also running on weaker hardware and an older operating system, with the same screen resolution but less RAM. HTC knows that they must stick to their guns, which has been providing a satisfactory user experience, so if you are concerned about the M9 lagging you might want to think twice.
Moreover, gaming on the closest comparable device, the G Flex 2, is good. Even if the device’s raw performance would equal out to a Snapdragon 805’s, you’d still be having an impeccable gaming experience regardless of what game you pick. As far as future proofing, the fact that 4K resolution in phones might be coming soon means that, once again, the new phones will have mitigated performance gains. When I moved from a Note 3 to a Note 4 I expected a major bump in gaming performance, but the higher-resolution screen made the frame rates extremely comparable and almost equally satisfying. My Note 3’s weaker hardware running Lollipop is actually faster than my KitKat Note 4 on some aspects, too, so OS optimizations play in the M9’s favor.
As far as regular applications go, the device will certainly not struggle. Many reviewers have been giving the M9 positive feedback regarding performance, and the device even scored a perfect 10 on that front on The Verge. However, AnandTech did mention that they encountered minor stutters, and ultimately I trust their testing more than the usual holistic mainstream reviews. While the M9 is not even a week old in the wild, we should expect the phone to perform properly, even if not mind-blowingly. HTC managed to provide a clean and fast user experience with the M8, and they are in a make-or-break financial situation: they simply can’t afford to put out a phone that overheats, but neither one with poor UI performance. They have had time to address both of these, and scaling down the performance is typically a sure-fire way to avoid overheating. At the same time, while we always crave the fastest devices, the M9 might not need the insane calculation prowess everyone expected to power up an amazing UX – something that the reviews currently out seem to back up, even if not fully. The rest of the features make for a compelling phone (although you might want to look into the camera, as many sound severely disappointed with it), and the new Uh Oh program by HTC is one of our favorite OEM moves in recent times.
What about the future? Now that the Snapdragon 810 is inserted into the wild, and that the M9 is approaching it too, we must look forward. A major concern that people have is that the Snapdragon 820 – the one that could fully redeem Qualcomm by once again introducing revamped custom Krait cores – is still very far away and may not arrive until early 2016. But this doesn’t mean that flagships are stuck with the Snapdragon 810 until then, as Qualcomm is issuing the intermediate Snapdragon 815 chipset which according to reports runs cooler than the 810 and the 801 (but I wouldn’t take these to heart for now, given the unprofessional and flaky displays and information).
There’s plenty of phones coming up soon, such as Sony’s Z4, LG’s G4, a new Motorola Moto X or unnamed flagship, the OnePlus Two… It’d be a shame if these devices were limited to the Snapdragon 810 – be it the ultimate cause of overheating or not – but the competition in the mobile chipset space has been growing dramatically: Exynos is seemingly leading the pack, but HiSilicon is showing promising advancements. Then there’s the usual repertoire of companies that are also are raising their game, and Intel’s chipsets, such as the Atom Z3580 found in the ZenFone 2, also look to be great alternative solutions. Hopefully the M9 truly does offer the same excellent performance as the M8: if it doesn’t, we’ll get to know the real culprit soon. And if it is the fabled 810, let’s pray that the rest of this year’s devices find a proper replacement… be it Qualcomm’s or not.
Are you buying an M9 despite the diminished performance? Tell us below!