When you’re talking about trucks or race cars, once you get past how one of them looks, it’s the engine which is important. It’s got to be built very intelligently to maximize the energy that’s being put into it (in the form of gasoline and oxygen) and convert it into mechanical energy that either enables it to pull heavy loads or makes it go fast. The engine isn’t the only component in the equation, that’s for sure. The transmission has got to be matched to the engine, and the exhaust has to be sized appropriately or it will choke. What do race cars, trucks, and engines have to do with Samsung and the Exynos processor? More than you might imagine.
Under the slick body panels of our smartphones and tablets, we have an engine, a transmission, and an exhaust system. All of that is encompassed in something we call the SoC – the System on a Chip. Among other things, the SoC consists of the CPU, GPU, and various controllers and radios.
CPUs come in a few different flavors. At the very top you’ve got CISC versus RISC. Chips based around Complex Instruction Sets are the kind that you’ll probably find inside your desktop and laptop computers. Chips based around Reduced Instructions Sets are those that likely power your smartphone, tablet, router, or other lightweight device, like the Raspberry Pi.
Once you dig into each type of chip you’ll find various different manufacturers. On the CISC side you’ve got AMD and Intel. Once we jump into RISC, there’s a whole bunch.
For quite a while we had some real competition going on inside the RISC camp. In the headlines were some pretty big companies like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and others. TI has all but thrown in the towel. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus was powered by a TI OMAP processor, but TI stopped supporting that some time ago, meaning drivers for new versions of the Android operating system have been absent, resulting in slow and eventually non-existent updates for the device. NVIDIA has been hit and miss. Big performance promises are made, but delivery often is entirely different, such as the Tegra 3 “powering” the 2012 Nexus 7. Today NVIDIA is still kicking, but its SoCs are generally focused on graphics-heavy devices like the Shield Tablet, and more recently the Nexus 9.
Then there is Qualcomm. Look inside any smartphone, tablet, or piece of consumer electronics and it’s a safe bet that you’ll find at least one chip with a Qualcomm label on it. Qualcomm makes the Snapdragon line of SoCs, and they’re very, very good.
Not one to leave well enough alone, somewhere along the line Samsung decided to make SoCs in addition to smartphones and phablets. It’s solution goes by the Exynos moniker, and it’s a pretty sweet piece of silicon. That’s where things get a little confusing.
Samsung doesn’t just make portable electronics. The company also makes televisions, RAM chips, smart watches, washers and dryers, and even sells Life Insurance. But another major part of Samsung’s business is making parts for other companies. Samsung has even made displays and SoCs for Apple.
Some versions of Samsung’s own Galaxy S 5 include a Snapdragon processor, others include an Exynos. Trying to figure out which version has which isn’t obviously apparent. There are business reasons behind that, one of which is reportedly better performance and battery life.
“An extra hour of battery life represents a huge improvement, but it’s one that will be absent from Western versions of the GS5″ – Samsung System LSI VP, Kyushik Hong
That’s nothing to scoff at, but one has to wonder why the Exynos wasn’t used in every version of the phone, and perhaps if resources might not be better spent using an off-the-shelf solution such as the Snapdragon rather than a home-baked solution like the Exynos. How much research and development must Samsung put into not only the Exynos SoC, but into variations of its smartphones built around different chips?
The folks behind the Raspberry Pi project faced a similar challenge. The team wanted to produce and sell a fully-functional computer for a very, very low price. Using off-the-shelf components, a very functional computer was able to be built and sold for US$35. Of course you’ve got to supply your own USB power adapter and cable, your own case, and your own SD card, but for under $50 you’ve got a computer that will do quite a bit.
Samsung is a very large company – or set of companies. When building a new device, the smartphone group may or may not buy chips from that group. But that group’s research and development has already been sunk.
What if Samsung built phones and tablets much in the same way as the Raspberry Pi is sourced and built? Rather than sinking so much time, talent, and money into another division tasked with making chips that end up in a relatively small percentage of a final product, why not use those resources to drive the cost of the product down? No, consumers may not see a huge drop in price but Samsung would be able to net a much greater profit on each device sold. Or so goes the theory.
When all is said and done, Samsung either needs to go all in with its own processor family, or simply give up on Exynos already, and go with an off-the-shelf solution.