Qualcomm owns the lion’s share of the premium and midrange mobile processor market, but it could soon face a new competitor. Samsung has confirmed that it’s talking to multiple firms, including China’s ZTE, about selling its Exynos system-on-a-chip (SoC) for use in phones, tablets, and other devices.
Most of Samsung’s cash comes from selling memory chips to basically everyone. It might be able to replicate some of that success by unleashing its ARM SoC as well. Samsung operates the System LSI chip-maker as an independent enterprise, so it wouldn’t be unusual to sell parts to other firms. It certainly has the capacity to scale up manufacturing to compete with the likes of MediaTek (which focuses mostly on midrange SoCs) and Qualcomm. The only other major player is HiSilicon, which makes the Kirin ARM chips, but this is a Huawei subsidiary that only supplies Huawei.
You might not hear a lot about Samsung Exynos chips, but they’re plenty common across the globe. Samsung uses Exynos chips in most of its flagship smartphones, except for those sold in the US. Those versions run Qualcomm Snapdragon chips instead of the Exynos. The only exceptions were the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, which ran Exynos chips because of Qualcomm’s overheating issues with the Snapdragon 810. Currently, Samsung has only one third-party customer for Exynos chips, the Chinese smartphone maker Meizu.
Inyup Kang, head of Samsung’s System LSI, says the company is talking to all OEMs. However, discussions with ZTE are perhaps the most intriguing. When the US government banned ZTE from purchasing US technology, it cut the company off from Qualcomm’s chips. ZTE could probably replace other components, but there was not a comparable chip designer located outside the US. Samsung’s expanded Exynos production could be exactly what ZTE needs. Samsung has not confirmed any specific deal with ZTE, and it’s not giving it special treatment because of the US technology ban.
Like Qualcomm chips, the Samsung Exynos is based on ARM designs. Qualcomm has traditionally made more changes to the CPU core design, whereas Samsung used the reference designs. However, Samsung’s current flagship SoC (the 9810) has custom M3 CPU cores based on the 64-bit ARM architecture. There are four of those clocked at 2.9GHz, along with four low-power Cortex A55 cores clocked at 1.9GHz.
Samsung’s SoC performs at least as well as comparable Qualcomm chips in most tests and even beats it in some. Weak points include the GPU, an ARM reference design that can’t keep up with Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs. Writing to storage and web rendering work are also a bit slower on Exynos chips. Still, it would be nice to have more competition for Qualcomm.
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