Why the octo-core Galaxy 4 rumor is not as crazy as it sounds

December 19, 2012
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Dual-core, quad-core, octo-core? Is this Samsung’s roadmap for the Galaxy S series? It might just be, if we are to trust a recent report from Korean media.

The Korea Times, a respected outlet that has provided inside scoops on Samsung before, has published a report on the business outlook of the two top-tier semiconductor manufacturers in South Korea, Samsung and SK hynix. Most of the report is quite bland, but buried at the bottom is this gem:

“The world’s largest electronics maker by revenue plans to unveil a new AP based on ARM’s big.LITTLE processing that will realize an octo-core processor to be used in the Galaxy SIV.”

Wow, let’s back up a little. What is big.LITTLE? How could Samsung fit eight cores into one slab of silicon? And, is it even remotely possible that we’ll see an octo-core chip on the Galaxy S4?

ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture

ARM revealed that the first devices featuring its new big.LITTLE architecture would come out in 2013 with early production runs scheduled for the end of 2012. ARM didn’t specify which chip manufacturer will break ground.

big.LITTLE chips bring together a set of fast Cortex A15 cores with a set of Cortex A7 cores running at lower speeds. Why this peculiar setup? To get the best of two worlds. The Cortex A15 cores are powerful, but they are demanding on the battery, while the slower Cortex A7 cores are much more energy efficient, so better suited for lightweight tasks that are common on mobile platforms.

Here’s the spiel: when the device requires substantial computing power, the A15 cores are throttled. As soon as the load eases, the energy-saving A7 cores take over. It’s like having a car with two engines – a big gas-guzzler for cruising down the highway, and a small 1-liter one for driving through city traffic.

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In theory, you can have various configurations, like two power cores and four efficient cores, but it’s likely that the first generation big.LITTLE chips will feature symmetrical configurations (2+2 or 4+4).

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen the same approach on Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chips, which come with four “regular” cores, plus a slower one that kicks in when energy efficiency is more important than processing speed.

Samsung will present its first big.LITTLE design in February 2013

According to the industry publication EE Times, Samsung will present the very first big.LITTLE CPU at an industry conference in February.

The report says that the chip will feature an octo-core configuration composed of four Cortex A15 chips clocked at 1.8GHz with 2MB L2 cache, and four Cortex A7 cores running at 1.2GHz and tuned for energy consumption. Both clusters are built on 28nm technology.

Galaxy S4 likely to be launched at MWC at the end of February 2013

Most rumors that we’ve heard so far about the Galaxy S4 suggest that the device will be unveiled at the Mobile World Congress, which will take place in Barcelona at the end of February.

Samsung is supposedly trying to have its flagship product in stores earlier than next year, when the Galaxy S3 was announced at the beginning of May and launched at the beginning of June.

Are the planets aligning for an octo-core Galaxy S4?

It’s hard to say.

When Samsung or other semiconductor manufacturers reveal new technologies, it usually takes a few months before the first products based on those technologies hit the stores. For instance, the Koreans have revealed the Exynos 5 Dual in a technical paper last August, but the first devices to run on such a chip (Exynos 5250) were the Samsung Chromebook and Google Nexus 10, both released in November.

From this perspective, it’s a bit unlikely that Samsung would announce an octo-core device just days after the formal introduction of the technology.

Another factor to consider is the existence of another highly anticipated chip design from Samsung – Exynos 5 Quad. The 5 Quad chips should pair a Mali T604 GPU with a quad-core Cortex A15 CPU. It would make more sense for Samsung to use a tried and true design on the Galaxy S4, instead of rushing out with the new big.LITTLE chips.

It’s a bit more likely that the first device to rock an octo-core chip will be a tablet, like the Galaxy Note 10.1 2. The Galaxy Note 3, due in late summer 2013, would make another worthy candidate.

Still, we can’t rule out the possibility of seeing an octo-core Galaxy S4. Why? Because Samsung isn’t the same company it was last year. The Galaxy S3 has been hugely successful, so the pressure to deliver the next big thing is quite larger. Competitors, from HTC to ZTE, are lurking in the shadows, ready to capitalize on every misstep.

Samsung has to deliver something dazzling in the Galaxy S4 and an octo-core SoC would certainly look good on the spec sheet, along with a full HD AMOLED display and a 13MP camera. One thing’s sure – early 2013 shapes out to be very exciting.

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