2016 will be a banner year for the System on Chip (SoC) industry. For the first time we will have leading edge SoCs (Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung) on the same manufacturing process enabling a true Apples to Apples comparison. Unfortunately, how we got there is being misrepresented by the media and analysts but that is Situation Normal for the semiconductor industry, absolutely.
It all started back in September of 2013 with the release of the Apple A7 SoC inside the Apple iPhone 5s which used the 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture versus the 32-bit ARMv7. A 64-bit CPU inside a smartphone? Surely you must be joking:
“I know there’s a lot of noise because Apple did [64-bit] on their A7. I think they are doing a marketing gimmick. There’s zero benefit a consumer gets from that” said Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Qualcomm.
Prior to Qualcomm Mr. Chandrasekher spent his career at Intel including 5 years as Senior Vice President of the now defunct Intel Mobility group making SoCs. His comment was later retracted and Mr. Chandraskher was demoted (lost his CMO title):
“The comments made by Anand Chandrasekher, Qualcomm CMO, about 64-bit computing were inaccurate. The mobile hardware and software ecosystem is already moving in the direction of 64-bit; and, the evolution to 64-bit brings desktop class capabilities and user experiences to mobile, as well as enabling mobile processors and software to run new classes of computing devices.” – Qualcomm
At the time of this announcement Qualcomm was architecting their next 32-Bit SoC which was scrapped immediately in favor of a 64-Bit version. In a rush to market, QCOM had to use the ARM Cortex A57-A53 Big-Little cores in the Snapdragon 808 and 810 chips versus their own custom architecture. As a result the famed Snapdragon SoC, which had previously ruled the mobile industry, lost their most important customer in the number one mobile company Samsung.
A recent report, which is now being repeated by the Parrots of Wall Street, credited Samsung’s need to fill their own fabs as the reason for the switch from Snapdragon to the Samsung Exynos SoC. If you know Samsung (as I do) you will know that they do not work that way. If you know the SoC business (as I do) you will know that this makes no sense whatsoever.
The competing Samsung Exynos SoC was launched in 2010 using the ARM Cortex A8. Remember, QCOMM and Apple both license the ARM instruction set and build their own microarchitectures (Cores). Samsung, Mediatek, and other SoC vendors use off-the-shelf ARM cores. The differences are noticeable in regards to performance and power usage which is why Samsung continued to use the Snapdragon in the majority of their mobile devices up until this year.
Samsung is a fierce competitor both inside and out meaning that even the internal divisions of Samsung compete for business. Bottom line: If the Samsung semiconductor group can make a better SoC, Samsung mobile will use it, and that’s what makes Samsung a market leader. That is the real reason why the new Samsung mobile devices use the 14nm Exynos 7 versus the 20nm Snapdragon 810, it is simply a better chip. I bought a Samsung 6S Edge and have experienced firsthand the superior performance and power usage. Even my 20nm A8 based iPhone 6 significantly trails the Edge. The next QCOMM Snapdragon chip (820) uses a 64-Bit custom core (Hydra) manufactured on the Samsung 14nm LPE process and my guess is that it will again get the Samsung mobile business, absolutely.
The Snapdragon 820, Exynos 7, and the next Apple SoC (A9) will all use Samsung 14nm LPE so we will get to do a head-to-head comparison of the QCOMM and Apple custom architectures for the first time. We will also get to compare custom cores versus the ARM cores used in the Exynos. I will give you my bet on this race in the comments section. I will also tell you the REAL reason why QCOMM switched from longtime partner TSMC to Samsung for 14nm.
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