Will Linux phones get decent processors in the future?

One of my great frustrations is that there are no decent CPUs available for Linux phones. None of the manufacturers of powerful mobile processors (Qualcomm Snapdragon, Samsung Exynos, MediaTek Helios/Dimensity, Apple A-series, UNISOC Tiger, HiSilicon Kirin) are willing to support Linux. Yes, it is possible after a couple years to get Linux support for some Snapdragons and Exynos chips, but I don’t think that Purism and PINE64 are willing to go that route, since community drivers often don’t fully support all the hardware, and proprietary blobs are required for the cellular modem, GNSS, WiFi, Bluetooth, HDMI video out, etc. Another option is to run Linux on top of Android drivers through libhybris, but it isn’t a good solution because Android drivers will stop being supported after a couple years by the chip manufacturer.

The current mobile processors with official Linux support are underpowered, outdated or suck too much energy for a phone. We just need a low-energy processor with some Cortex-A7x cores that uses a recent node size, but the chip companies don’t seem to be interested in making these kinds of chips for Linux.

The L5’s 1.5GHz i.MX 8M Quad at 28nm sucks too much energy and it lacks Cortex-A7x cores. The 1.8GHz i.MX 8M Plus (which is proposed for the Fir batch) uses a decent 14nm node size and is more energy efficient, but it has worse graphics than the i.MX 8M Quad, no DisplayPort support, and no Cortex-A7x cores.

The Allwinner A64 used in the PinePhone is hopelessly outdated and underpowered, and Allwinner doesn’t want to collaborate with the Linux community to support its more recent chips. The Rockchip RK3399S, which is used in the PinePhone Pro, has decent performance with two 1.5GHz Cortex-A72 cores, but they suck too much energy with a 28nm planar node. The Rockchip RK3566 (which will be used in the future PinePhone 2) has four up-to-date A55 cores, but no A7x cores and it still uses a 22nm planar node, so its performance and energy efficiency aren’t that great compared to the processors in today’s smartphones.

The Broadcom BC2711 (used in the Raspberry Pi 4) is pretty powerful with 4x 1.5GHz Cortex-A72 cores, but its 28nm planar node isn’t that energy efficient. I think it could make a decent Linux phone if downclocked, but Broadcom refuses to sell the processor to low-volume device makers like Purism and PINE64. Only device makers like the Raspberry Pi Foundation which ship millions of devices per year can get access to Broadcom’s chips.

The best chip that is currently available (that I could find) is the Amlogic S922X with 4x Cortex-A73 @ 1.8GHz, 2x Cortex-A53 @ 1.9GHz); 12nm fab; Mali-G52 GPU with 6x 846MHz EEs. It is designed for TV setup boxes, and I couldn’t find much info about its energy consumption, so I’m not sure how it would do in a phone. It is limited to a max of 4GB LPDDR4 RAM and it doesn’t support DisplayPort, so it requires adding an extra chip to convert HDMI to DisplayPort in order to get video out over USB-C. According to this web page, Mesa supports the GPU, but there is no support for hardware video encoding, the CSI camera interface, and the DSI video out (which would presumably be used by the phone’s screen) and only partial support for hardware video decoding.

The best chip that will be available in the near future is the 8nm Rockchip RK3588, which will have great performance with 4x 2.6GHz Cortex-A76, 4x 1.8GHz Cortex-A55 cores, Mali-G610 MP4 graphics, 6 TOPS NPU (neural processing unit), 8K@60Hz video decoding, PCIe 3.0, and USB 3.1 Gen 1. It is unclear when Mesa will support the Mali-G610 GPU, and I assume that there will be some blobs required just like for the RK3399. It also wasn’t designed for phones, so I doubt it will be energy efficienct, but it is hard to know at this point. However, at least it will make fantastic convergent phone/PC with support up to 16GB RAM and high resolution video out.

I noticed in the recent Register interview with Todd Weaver that Purism is considering using an NXP i.MX 9 processor in the next Librem 5.

He also said the processor tends toward the toasty side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, modified a bunch of Linux kernel development, so that we could get that cooler. It’s just that CPU runs hot. The next iteration, we’ll be using probably I.MX9 … that’s still probably two years away.”

I did an online search and all that I could find about the future i.MX 9 was that some i.MX 93x processors were announced in Nov. 2021, which only have two A55 cores and a 2D GPU and are designed for IoT devices.

I assume that NXP must have told Purism that it will be announcing more powerful processors in the i.MX 9 series in the future, but I’m skeptical that NXP is going to release a high-performance mobile processor for a Linux phone, because it didn’t do that with the i.MX 8M series. The future i.MX 9 processors will reportedly use 16 and 12 nm node sizes, which tells me that NXP isn’t going to try compete in terms of performance. If all NXP gives us in the i.MX 9 series is a four-core A55 chip at a 12nm node size, the Librem 5 v2 won’t be much better than the PinePhone 2 with a RK3566 processor.

Honestly, this doesn’t make me very optimistic about Linux phones being able to compete with Android/iOS phones any time soon. PINE64 says that it plans to make devices for the RK3588 just like it is planning to do with the RK3566, but if the RK3588 sucks energy like the RK3399, I don’t think the RK3588 will be a very usable mobile processor for phones. It appears to me that we will have the RK3588, which will make a great handheld PC, but will have poor battery life, and an i.MX 9 processor, which will have decent battery life, but poor performance for a convergent phone/PC. Meanwhile, Apple Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, etc. will be rolling out 3nm mobile processors with great performance and great battery life, which Linux phones can’t use.

9 Likes

But why do we really need a more powerful CPU in a phone? (not counting the energy efficiency). You can always ssh into your server for a CPU-heavy work. Librem 5 can play videos and simple 3D games. It can also run almost all apps.

Perhaps only desktop mode suffers from the poor CPU performance, but, again, you can use it as a thin client.

Yes, it sucks that we can’t have powerful CPU on a GNU/Linux phone soon, but most needs are already met by what exists AFAIK.

The Linux phones have a sufficient potential to grow as they are. After they have many more users, some CPU company might change their mind concerning the Linux support…

4 Likes

I fully agree with @fsflover why want more cpu powerful on a GNU+Linux Mobile phone? If @amosbatto talk about Linux Mobile it is a lot on the market with powerful cpu like Samsung Galaxy, Oneplus devices, Oppo devices, Google nexus, etc, etc.

1 Like

The L5 (and whatever comes after) are meant to be convergent phones, and convergence would benefit greatly from a better CPU.

8 Likes

As someone who attempted to use my Librem 5 for my primary personal cell phone for about two months, I can tell you from actual experience that it felt significantly slower than working from a normie phone. Gnome Web started quicker than Firefox but wasn’t as compatible with websites. I think Firefox was compatible with all websites I went to but was extremely slow to start and somewhat slow to run. I don’t know if further optimization could make it start and run faster, but it seems like a more powerful (and perhaps cooler) CPU would have run Firefox better.

6 Likes

Thank you, Amosbatto for the good analysis.

Has anyone tried VNC from Librem 5 to a desktop computer and how was the performance?

Marketability, for one.

While you or I may not need a fast CPU or jigawatts of RAM on a phone, I saw a lot of responses to the L5 from mainstream buyers along the lines of “Not enough RAM for a phone in 2020” or “CPU is too slow”.

Whether or not they even need the horsepower is another thing too, but bigger numbers go a long way towards making people buy stuff in my opinion.

Not me (no phone yet) but I can’t wait to ssh -X from my PC to my phone and have Chatty on my desktop through my phone.

I mean there are lot cool features that Librem 5 still need enabled just better than more cpus onto L5, increase cpus mean more Hot y Battery hungry.
With current L5 CPUs we can have a faster convergence if we put air cooler to L5 when L5 is running on convergence.

Like Librem 5 need a dedicated LIBREM-5-DOCK to keep cooler the device to ingrease cpu speed on Convergence. I making one.
L5 it good designed to pasive sink hot, but still need vent on.

1 Like

But why do users need access to their software? It’s not like they’d know how to use it or have use for it. That is what your post sounds like to me. It is a very Apple mindset. The same mindset steve jobs had.
To counter, why would I need a server to remote into when I could have more than enough processing power on the go in my pocket. As someone whos generally doing IT support related tasks in the field remoting into a server at my house is useless when I need to fix a computer that won’t boot. This phone has the ability to replace my entire keychain of random recovery drives I am forced to lug around. But according to people like you we don’t need a more powerful CPU and it’s okay that it will take longer to complete a task.

Why the future?

One the great benefits of linux was that it allowed folks to refurbish old computers, speed them up and give them new life after windoze bloat. Too bad there isn’t a medium to flash old 'droids with a linux O/S.

Having used both the L5USA and PinePhone, I do think that their processors are limiting the phones. With the PinePhone, the RAM and eMMC is very slow and it takes a long time to load apps. (The slow RAM is due to the A64 and I suspect that PINE64 hobbled the interface speed to the eMMC because they werent sure that the A64 could handle a faster eMMC.) It takes about 10 seconds just to load the configuration app (GNOME settings) in Phosh. I really notice how sluggish the interface is even after the apps are loaded.

With the L5USA, it loads apps in about half the time as the PinePhone, but my $175 Android phone with a Snapdragon 660 loads apps in about a third of the time that it takes the L5USA and the interface is much snappier. Some of this difference can be solved with software optimization. When GTK 4 gets hardware acceleration from the GPU that should help speed up the interface, and image encoding can be made faster, so it doesn’t take so long to snap a photo.

However, the bigger problem in my opinion is the energy inefficiency of the processor. Because of the aluminum frame, you can feel the heat from the processor in the L5 and it also shortens the battery life, which is the biggest limitation of the L5 in my opinion.

The Purism devs will eventually figure out the power management issues, so the L5 only needs to be charged once per day, but the lack of a competitive processor still effects the ability to market Linux phones. For most people, their phone is their camera/camcorder, and that requires a decent processor. Linux phones’ killer feature at this point is convergence, and it is hard to market that feature with the current processors. When a phone costs $150, people will buy it as an experiment and not worry if it gets stuck in a drawer, but when it costs $1299, they need to be able to justify that expenditure, and it is hard to do that when their Android/iOS phone has a processor that is 10 times faster.

5 Likes

I know a lot of effort went into adding support for the m1 chip in linux with no help from apple. How hard would it be to have a similar effort for one of the snapdragon processors?

edit: Also mobian had a build for the oneplus 6. So there appears to be some effort on the processor that runs

High specs are also contributing towards virtualization options. And as we all know sandboxing and virtualization is the mother of security. So for a security focused phone it is not a bad thing to be able to run VMs.

1 Like

6T on Mobian is taking ages to charge and battery discharges within 3 hours just by browsing the internet. Mobian needs optimization for Oneplus and nowhere near ready to be a daily driver.

2 Likes

Have to admit though, Gnome apps and FF on 6T running smooth, some do not scale automatically but there’s a workaround for that. I doubt there’s continuous support and commits for 6T to last on Mobian, hoping to be proven wrong soon-ish and to see devs get the 6T work horse becoming an affordable alternative. However it still remains a de-googled smartphone, no mainline so it isn’t fair to do a comparison against L5.

Fullay agreed amosbatto. The mx8 might have decent enough performance for me, but it was never designed to be energy efficient. And it shows. So we can have fast, short-run time and hot like the mx8 or the rockchips (and I am doubtful that suspend will be a silver bullet), or ultra slow like the pinephone.

3 Likes

Let’s hope that happens. Apple, Samsung and Huawei only make chips for their own devices, and I doubt that they are interested in making Linux phones. That leaves Qualcomm, MediaTek and UNISOC. Of those three, Qualcomm has the best history of being willing to work with the Linux community by publishing the source code of its Android kernels on the Aurora Forum, but it doesn’t share any info about its hardware without making people sign an NDA. MediaTek and UNISOC routinely violate the GPL 2, because they don’t publish the source code for their Android kernels. UNISOC is also partially owned by the Chinese government, so I doubt that a company like Purism would even want to use its processors.

The global smartphone market is about 1.4 billion units per year, so it is easy to see why the chip companies aren’t interested in the tiny Linux phone market. We basically have to hope that companies that make tablets, automotive head up displays (HUDs) and drive processors, TV setup boxes, object and voice recognition devices, etc. will convince Qualcomm or MediaTek to support Linux, because they have the kind of volume to convince these companies. With the advent of electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, I think we have an opportunity, because they need HUDs and drive processors, which are both powerful, but also energy efficient.

Historically, it has taken a couple years after a Snapdragon release to get support for the chip to be added to mainline Linux. If a company was dedicated to the task, it probably could happen much much faster. It is a risk for Linux phone makers, because if they wait until there is good Linux support, Qualcomm may stop producing the chip, which is what happened to the Snapdragon 800 that F(x)tec wanted to use in the X1 Pro, and they had to switch to another Snapdragon chip.

From what I understand, the Linux support for the M1 happened so fast, because Corellium (a company who specializes with ARM device virtualization) spent years studying how the A-series processors work, and they applied that to the M1. If Apple didn’t block the bootloader for the A-series processors, it would be possible to run Linux on iPhones and iPads.

4 Likes

There is preliminary work to get Linux on the Shift6mq (Qualcomm® Snapdragon 845), at least for the postmarketOS distro. So there will be more powerful options in the future, even if they don’t have kill switches

3 Likes