The Exynos 5 Octa and the State of Samsung SoCs

June 2, 2013
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Since the release of the first Galaxy S devices, Samsung has relied heavily on its in-house System-on-a-Chip (SoC), the Exynos. The CPUs in the Exynos chips are based on the Cortex series, licensed directly from ARM. Samsung frequently includes Mali GPUs in Exynos chips, which are also licensed directly from ARM. In contrast, Samsung’s primary SoC competition comes from Qualcomm and Apple – both of whom merely license the ARM instruction sets for compatibility and then design their own CPU architecture. While Samsung’s relatively boilerplate designs have fared well – Exynos chips are consistently among top industry performers – there are increasing signs that, with the Exynos 5 Octa, the chip may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

A bit of history

Samsung faces two major obstacles in the SoC market. First, it’s simply unable to compete with Qualcomm’s LTE baseband products, which severely limits Samsung’s ability to deliver SoCs with integrated mobile connectivity. Second, Samsung is largely at the mercy of others for real improvements to its chips – either by ARM in design or by industry limits on fabrication. Arguably, GPU development is another issue for Samsung, but the inclusion of the beefy PowerVR SGX544MP3 with the Exynos 5 Octa (5410) proves that the company is willing and able to simply buy its way around that issue.

Fortunately for Samsung, its LTE connectivity issues can be resolved in the same manner. To bring LTE connectivity to the Exynos 4 Quad (4412) in the Note 2 or to the Exynos 5 Octa in the Korean Galaxy S4, Samsung paired the Exynos chip with a Qualcomm baseband chip. Apple does the same thing with the iPhone 5. The ongoing problem for Samsung in this space is one of timing. Qualcomm tends to release its latest baseband chip embedded in the latest Snapdragon SoCs and only releases the baseband as a discrete (stand alone) unit months later. This works for Apple because it releases new iPhones in the fall, after Qualcomm’s discrete units are available. By releasing the flagship Galaxy S phones in the late spring, Samsung is left to choose between using the latest baseband technology – and therefore the rest of the Snapdragon SoC – or pairing last year’s Qualcomm baseband with this year’s Exynos. For both the S3 and the S4, Samsung chose the Snapdragon in major LTE markets around the world, chips that have been cannibalizing Exynos sales along the way.

Galaxy S2

Samsung Galaxy S2

The recent history of the CPUs in Samsung’s Exynos processors might suggest that LTE connectivity is not the only compelling reason for the company to prefer not to use its own SoCs. Looking back, it’s possible that the Exynos 4 Dual (4210) in the Galaxy S2 may have been the high water mark for the SoC line. That chip included a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU built on 45nm. A year later, Qualcomm was shipping the Snapdragon S4, which had dual-core Krait CPU built on 28nm. Krait is Qualcomm’s self-designed architecture built to compete against ARM’s Cortex-A15. The expectation was for Samsung to deliver something similarly advanced in the Galaxy S3. Instead, it released the Exynos 4 Quad (4412). With a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU built on 32nm, it amounted to only a core increase and size decrease over the previous generation. With double the number of cores and a severely overclocked GPU, the Exynos 4 Quad was strong enough to regularly outperform the Snapdragon S4. It was reasonable at this point to attribute the decision to release the Galaxy S3 in the U.S. with the Snapdragon SoC entirely to fix Samsung’s LTE problem, but the lack of innovation in the Exynos 4 Quad portended larger problems on the horizon.

After it was unable to produce the chip in time for the Galaxy S3 launch, later in 2012, the company finally released the Exynos 5 Dual (5250). It includes a dual-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU built on 32nm. The chip delivers decent performance, but Samsung’s inability to control the power consumption of the Cortex-A15 design relegated the chip to use only in the Samsung Chromebook and the Samsung-built Google Nexus 10. This is the chip Samsung was supposed to deliver in the Galaxy S3 and instead it came extremely late and was not, in truth, particularly good.

Exynos 5 Octa and the Galaxy S4

All of this leads up to the Exynos 5 Octa and the Galaxy S4. The Octa is used in the GT-I9500 variant of the Galaxy S4 and is supposed to solve the problem of Cortex-A15 power consumption by using ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture. big.LITTLE allows the use of two core clusters, one for high-performance tasks and one for low-performance tasks. In the Octa, this is a quad-core Cortex-A15 cluster and a quad-core Cortex-A7 cluster, all built on 28nm. In big.LITTLE, there are supposed to be three modes for managing threads across all of the cores in both clusters. Evidence thus far suggests that the Octa really only supports one of these modes – the least efficient. Even worse, it appears that this limitation is due to crippled hardware in the SoC and not something that can be fixed in software.

The first unsupported mode in the Octa is called core-migration. In this mode, each of the four Cortex-A15 cores is ‘paired’ with a Cortex-A7 core. At idle, one A7 core in the first pair would be running at minimum speeds and the others are all deactivated. As load increases, either another pair would come online with its A7 core, or the first pair would ramp up to the A15 core. Each pair is able to independently toggle between the A7 and A15 cores as needed depending on load and threading. This adds efficiency and greatly reduced power consumption. The second unsupported mode in the Octa is called heterogeneous multi-processing (HMP), which allows tasks to be scheduled across all 8 cores independently. This has obvious benefits in maximum power output, but might not always yield improvements in power consumption.

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