Samsung to follow Qualcomm and start using custom ARM cores in its Exynos processors

by: Gary SimsJuly 29, 2013

ExynosAccording to reports coming out of Asia, Samsung is working to replace the ARM designed Cortex-A15 and Cortex-A7 processor cores in its next generation of Exynos processors. Until now Samsung has used a variety of ARM designed processing cores in its SoCs starting with the Cortex-A8 based Exynos 3 back in 2010. In 2011 it used Cortex-A9 cores in its Exynos 4 range and in 2012/2013 it moved to the Cortex-A15 for its dual-core Exynos 5 and the  Cortex-A15 /Cortex-A7 combination for its big.LITTLE eight core Exynos 5 Octa chips.

Many SoC manufacturers, including Samsung, take the standard ARM cores and combine them with a GPU, plus the other necessary bits, to produce a fairly standard ARM based processor. The manufacturer can tweak things like the number of cores, the amount of cache, clock speeds and the manufacturing process to produce processors according to their needs. However others like Qualcomm and Apple use these standard cores as starting points and redesign the internals of the processor to tweak the performance. Qualcomm’s core is called the Krait and has different iterations with the latest Snapdragon 800 processors using four Krait 400 cores running at up to 2.3 GHz. Apple’s custom core is known as Swift and is found in the A6 and A6X processors. Unlike Qualcomm, Apple also adds new instructions to the processors making them incompatible with the standard ARMv7 instruction set. However for Apple this isn’t an issue as it doesn’t sell the A6 or A6X to anyone else and controls all the low level software on its devices.

It now looks like Samsung will use its engineering might to start creating its own custom ARMv7 based cores. This isn’t surprising as although Samsung’s relatively boilerplate designs have fared well and the Exynos chips have shown themselves to be among top industry performers – there are increasing signs that the Exynos 5 Octa may have some problems. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone was launched with two processor variations, some devices used the Exynos processor and others a Qualcomm processor. The majority of Galaxy S4 units sold by Samsung use a Qualcomm processor rather than Samsung’s own chip. There are also rumors that the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 3 will use a Snapdragon 800. Also the latest variant of the S4, the LTE-A enabled Samsung Galaxy S4 SHV-E330S, also comes with the Snapdragon 800.

The question is, how quickly can Samsung develop a custom ARM core? According to the reports the new custom core Exynos SoCs will available sometime in the second half of 2014.

What do you think, is this is a good move by Samsung or should it stick with ARM designed cores?

  • EliasAlucard

    Sapple is becoming more and more proprietary, now more than ever do all of us Android enthusiasts need to boycott Samsung/Sapple for real, seeing as how Sapple is throwing out standard solutions in favour of incompatible proprietary nonsense. Standards and interoperability ftw! The reason Sapple is doing this, is called: proprietary vendor lock-in. It’s anti-consumer.

    • lil bit

      Partly, but if Samsung does not add new instructions there will not be a noticeable difference from today’s situation. Exynos devices already required developers to modify code for exynos compatibility, in other words: Exynos is already a mess. I had many compatibility issues with note2, and Galaxy S was a total mess at launch, lots of apps didn’t run correctly. Fragmentation is not so much about the cpu core as it is about the chipset as a whole. Qualcomm worth their custom cores seem to have far less compatibility issues historically.

      • EliasAlucard

        Yeah, but Exynos will become even more of a mess now that Sapple is moving it into a significatly more proprietary direction.

      • Roberto Tomás

        I was kinda surprised that Apple creates custom instructions. This means that rooting an Apple product and overwriting the base OS with Android would leave your system in a very vulnerable state to custom Trojans.

        • Misti curia

          Well the hard bit would be overwriting the base is with android. And by hard I mean virtually impossible.

    • Cao Meo

      I’m also worried about threat that Samsung poses to Android, but I think it’s Google who controls the ecosystem not Samsung, so if Samsung wants to go Apple’s way it has to create its own ecosystem which is a very long shot.

    • K.

      I do not see the problem with Samsung building its own custom cpus based on Arm’s instructions. This is no different from what Qualcomm is doing and this situation is already present in the desktop market where both Intel’s and Amd’s cpus are based on the x86 instructions.

      • kascollet

        Absolutely right. Most people don’t understand much about processors/instructions/platforms.

    • john

      Yep, Samsung “open source drivers” are a horrible mess that annoys the hell out of everyone. Still, I do not see this extending to this article ie) yes, Samsung need to work on making the drivers and hardware support more viable, but creating their custom ARMsv7 core doesn’t necessarily mean even more compatibility issues-unless they are doing something very wrong.

      Same with modifying/creating their ISA. As unlikely it is, adding a few more instructions to the existing instruction set isn’t going to break the compatibility, and there aren’t that many things that go that low, kernels, boot, etc. Also, I think they will refrain from adding any new instruction unless it is absolutely marvelous. Hell, I’m not even sure Samsung has the license to modify the ISA.

    • abazigal

      I don’t see how it is necessarily anti-consumer. Let’s take a look at what Apple has done. They control the hardware and software, allowing them to dictate the user experience to the consumer, in ways that competitors using stock parts and software can’t. Most won’t care about what is going on under the hood, but they know (and appreciate) basis stuff like a buttery-smooth and responsive UI when they see one.

      Also, while Apple uses a lot of proprietary hardware, they tend to be superior to standard features like micro-USB, so I don’t see it entirely as a bad thing, in that we at least get some added benefit out of it.

      Same here with Samsung. As it is, currently, if you want faster processors, you typically have to suck up shorter battery life. A customised processor might allow Samsung to better prioritise stuff like battery life without necessarily compromising performance too much. The end result would be beneficial to the end consumer in the form of longer battery life.

      Going forward, I think this is how the major players are going to go about it. Heavyweights like Microsoft, Samsung and even Google taking a page from Apple and becoming more closed while developing their own hardware in-house. As Apple has shown, what you may lose in market share, you more than make up for it in terms of profits.

    • zeth006

      Vendor lock-in? Do you even know what you’re talking about? How is this a problem if it improves app compatibility and performance? How can you justify saying it’s okay if Qualcomm does the same?

    • Guest

      Could you explain how they’re becoming more proprietary? as personally I think this is poppycock.

  • MasterMuffin

    While you’re at it, #freeExynos ?

  • Roberto Tomás

    “According to the reports the new custom core Exynos 5 SoCs will available sometime in the second half of 2014.” Anyone got a link to this? I’m interested because of the word choices used here, they say “Exynos 5” instead of just Exynos. One would assume that the next-gen Exynos 5 SoCs are coming basically now (well, august), along-side the snapdragon 800. And also that the next major change to the SoC would be “Exynos 6”, not “Exynos 5” still. Yet, if that wording comes from the source article, it could hint to even more details than we are seeing here .. I’d like to see.

    • The link to the original is listed in the SOURCE section, but yes the ‘5’ shouldn’t be there and I have modified the article.

      Thanks, Gary.

  • john

    I’m just waiting for someone to come up Android port on JOP. I got my fingers cross that either Qualcomm, Samsung, or Intel- the BIG 3 of semiconductor business- to get on with it.

    Will it work/practical? I have no idea, but will be definitely more exciting that all these.

  • Bone

    Actually it makes sense to start designing the custom A57 and A53-based SoCs on 22nm and 14nm. big.LITTLE needs to be dropped or switch to a 2×2 core version where at peak performance all cores are in use and proper core migration is implemented. All radios needs to be on chip too, plus heat needs to be the absolute main area of focus. Last but not least, it’d be wise to work with next-gen GPU makers from the scratch for further efficiency, and work with the SW team to keep that side fluid.

  • kascollet

    I thought Apple SoCs where 100% ARM ISA compliant.

    Source ?

  • Jack Hoffman

    I thought that the S4 using Qualcomm was for LTE markets as the Exynos wasn’t so good with LTE.

    • zeth006

      Nope. Note 2 had Exynos with LTE.

  • Joshua Hill

    I think Samsung’s problems with Exynos Octa were manufacturing based (i.e. at the fab level). This is not a valid reason to support them switching to custom ARM implementations.