A rumor has begun circulating over the past week about the possible existence of an upgraded version of the just-released Galaxy Nexus. At CES, ASUS announced the TF700T, a beefier version of the Transformer Prime (well before the first Transformer Prime has even been released in many countries), leaving a lot of people who bought the first iteration a bit upset. Are Google and Samsung following ASUS's lead and planning on releasing an incremental upgrade to the Galaxy Nexus so soon?
The Story So Far
Normally, our policy is to avoid reporting on stories for which we can’t find good corroborating evidence. We originally decided against running with this story, but in light of the coverage it’s received we feel a responsibility to try to provide some insight.
Rumors started swirling with the pre-CES discovery of an advertisement for a Sprint version of the Galaxy Nexus. The ad specifically mentioned a “1.5 GHz Dual-Core Processor”, which doesn’t match the clock speed of the GSM or Verizon LTE versions. It was easy enough to pass this off as a marketing mistake, since the CPU in the Galaxy Nexus is technically advertised as a 1.5 GHz chip. During CES, the Sprint version of the Galaxy Nexus was officially announced, but with no mention of CPU speed. Samsung and Sprint have declined to comment on the CPU specifications of this device, so we’re left to draw our own conclusions.
Then, a few days ago an anonymous Nenamark2 benchmark result was found which had a device identified as a Galaxy Nexus operating above the standard CPU speed and equipped with a new graphics processor. This happens to correspond nicely to a new TI chip that is scheduled to start appearing in devices during the first half of 2012 - and it’s the direct successor to the one currently found in the Galaxy Nexus. Suddenly everyone’s new phone is worthless, right?
The OMAP4460 and OMAP4470
This new version of the Galaxy Nexus would seem to feature a new system-on-chip from Texas Instruments, the OMAP4470, replacing the current OMAP4460. According to TI’s roadmap, the most noteworthy improvements to the new SoC are higher-clocked CPU cores and a much-improved graphics subsystem.
The OMAP4460 is manufactured using a 45nm process. Its two ARM Cortex A9 cores have a maximum intended clock speed of 1.5 GHz; however, to reduce battery usage and maximize chip production yield, the Galaxy Nexus runs at a reduced 1.2 GHz.
The OMAP4470 is manufactured with the same 45nm process and retains the two Cortex A9 CPU cores but with a higher maximum clock speed - up to 1.8 GHz. It’s likely that to improve battery life the CPU speed could end up as low as 1.5 GHz.
These numbers aren’t set in stone obviously, but it would appear that the theoretical speed difference could be as high as 25%. A faster CPU is always a welcome change (as long as there are no major tradeoffs), but let’s put that aside for now. What about the GPU?
A Faster GPU: The Answer To All Our Problems!
One of the frequent criticisms of the Galaxy Nexus is its GPU, which is basically just a faster version of the old PowerVR SGX540. This is the same GPU that was used in a slew of Android devices including Samsung’s popular Galaxy S series, and has even found a home in some of Intel’s Atom chips.
Needless to say, the choice to put this piece of “old technology” into the cutting-edge Galaxy Nexus has left some people a little... perturbed. The original SGX540 ran at 200 MHz, while the one in the OMAP4460 is specified to run at 384 MHz, but even this has a caveat. As mentioned earlier, the OMAP4460 doesn’t run at its full speed, and this applies to the GPU as well: it’s reduced to just 307 MHz, just (approximately) 50% faster than the original version.
The fact is, if you wanted to pick on a single weakness for Google’s new developer phone, this would be a fair target. The engineers at TI have lots of calculators on hand to figure this all out, and it's one area where the OMAP4470 would represent a significant improvement over its older sibling.
In the new OMAP4470 SoC, the SGX540 is swapped out for a shiny new SGX544 alongside a new dedicated 2D graphics core. This new GPU would be a nice step up from the SGX540@307MHz, but it’s difficult to say precisely how much faster it would be in practice because we don’t know what the final clock speeds will be. As previously mentioned, the OMAP4460 is officially supposed to operate at 1.5 GHz / 384 MHz, but instead we have it running in the Galaxy Nexus at 1.2 GHz / 307 MHz.
What can be said for certain is that the new GPU will be much more powerful: at least twice the theoretical performance at the same clock speed. This probably won’t mean that a game which ran at 25 FPS before will run at 50 FPS on a device with the new SoC; there will always be performance bottlenecks that have nothing to do with the GPU, though it would definitely improve that performance significantly. But before we get ahead of ourselves, is this Galaxy Nexus rumor even true?
The Smell Test
Probably not. There are a number of reasons this rumor must be put under heavy scrutiny.
The original basis for the rumor was a Sprint ad that said 1.5 GHz instead of 1.2 GHz for the CPU clock speed. But the versions of the Galaxy Nexus that are currently available have a CPU intended to run at 1.5 GHz. but which is actually running at 1.2 GHz. Given how often carriers make mistakes in their advertising, it’s hardly surprising that this might slip through.
The second part of this rumor is a single benchmark score. If you’re at all familiar with Android benchmarks, you’ll probably know that falsifying scores or even system information is very easy to do.
Not to mention, it would be highly unusual for Google to release an updated Nexus device so quickly. Up to this point, they have released only one Nexus device each year. Even before there were Nexus devices, major “flagship” Android devices like the the HTC G1 and Motorola DROID (or Milestone) were released about a year apart. This has even extended to tablets, where the Motorola Xoom officially carried the Google-approved torch for all of 2011. And that doesn't appear to be something that's about to change: Google recently announced their intention to “[market] a tablet of the highest quality” in the first half of 2012. “A” tablet. Singular.
It’s normal for new hardware to be tested by pairing it with older hardware rather than designing a whole new device right away. It’s possible that there’s a new device in development that’s using the guts of a Galaxy Nexus during testing. It could even be the “Nexus tablet” - which would make a lot more sense than a major hardware revision to the 2-month-old Nexus phone.
Or, who knows? Maybe, against all odds, there’s actually a new Galaxy Nexus variant coming out for Sprint. It just seems very, very unlikely. But what if it is true, should current Galaxy Nexus owners be up in arms?
So Is Everyone’s Phone Suddenly Worthless Or Not?
The Galaxy Nexus isn’t underpowered, but it was released right at the end of a technology cycle; the SGX540 GPU is undeniably at the end of its rope as far as performance is concerned. Some have argued that a different SoC should’ve been used, such as Samsung’s Exynos, but to say that one chip should have been used over another without actually having been involved in the design process is nonsense. Besides, with the all new chips coming down the pike over the next 12 months, the Exynos SoC will quickly be just as "outdated". Snapdragon S4 chips such as the totally kickass MSM8960 are one near-term example. But not long after that, we'll see the first Cortex A15-based chips! This stuff has been moving fast, and the pace is continuing to accelerate.
The Galaxy Nexus is still among the fastest, most advanced devices you can buy, and some hypothetical new variant won’t change that. To developers right now, making apps that require Galaxy Nexus-level hardware as a minimum would mean closing themselves off from the vast majority of the market. It’ll be a while yet before anything comes out that requires better hardware than what this phone provides.
And before you start worrying about the inevitable fact that your shiny new phone will eventually be obsolete, why not wait and see what it turns out to be capable of? Android 4.0 introduces a wide range of new features that app developers have only just gained access to. As apps are gradually updated to take advantage of these new things - like 2D hardware acceleration for example - you’ll actually find your phone performing better in some respects than when you bought it.
What matters about a device isn’t the numbers, it’s whether it does what you want. The Galaxy Nexus is an incredibly well-balanced device: it has a great screen, a solid design, pretty decent battery life, and lots of extra features you won’t easily find in another device. If you want to pick on something, pick on the average-quality camera or the lack of expandable storage. These are at least functional complaints about the device, not a knee-jerk panic attack because there's a higher-numbered chip possibly available at some time during the next six months. If you want the best smartphone right now, this is still it, and probably will be for a good while.
Update: One of our sources that has been reliable in the past insists the Sprint Nexus devices that are undergoing testing right now are clocked at 1.2GHz and not 1.5.