Samsung is planning big things for the next release of its Exynos system on a chip. The company has already promised that the “next generation” of its Exynos SoC will have a GPU from AMD, which partnered with Samsung in June 2019. A new report from The Korea Economic Daily provides more details.
The report says that “the South Korean tech giant will unveil a premium Exynos chip that can be used in both laptops and smartphones in the second half of this year” and that “the new Exynos chip for laptops will use the graphics processing unit ( GPU) jointly developed with US semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices Inc.”
Something needs to be unpacked here. Firstly, a launch this year would be an acceleration of the normal Samsung schedule. The last Exynos flagship was announced in January 2021, so normally you’d be signing up for the new Exynos for early next year. Second, the report makes every effort to specify that the Laptop chip will have an AMD GPU, so… not the smartphone chip?
It was always doubtful whether Samsung intended to bolster its Exynos smartphone chips as the company splits its flagship smartphone range between Exynos and Qualcomm depending on the region. Exynos chips are always inferior to Qualcomm chips, but Samsung considers the two products close enough to call the Exynos and Qualcomm-based phones the same product. If Samsung knocked it out of the park with an AMD GPU, where would the Qualcomm phones be? Would Samsung Dump Qualcomm? That’s hard to believe, and it sounds like the easy answer for the company is not to drastically change Exynos smartphone chips.
For laptops, Samsung has to chase its favorite rival, Apple, who is jumping into ARM laptops with its M1 chip. If Samsung wants its products to have any hope of competing with Apple laptops, it should launch its own ARM laptop SoC. Getting AMD on board for this move makes the most sense (it already makes Windows GPUs), and while that would be a good first step, it still doesn’t seem to lead to a complete, competitive product.
What about the CPU?
Even assuming all goes well with Samsung’s AMD partnership and the company gets a top-of-the-line SoC GPU, the kind of chip Samsung seems to be producing isn’t what you’d set up for use in a great laptop. The three major components in a SoC are the CPU, GPU, and modem. It seems that everyone is investing in SoC design, and some companies are better positioned to produce a competitive chip than others.
Of course everyone is chasing Apple’s M1 SoC, but Apple’s expertise aligns well with what you’d expect from a laptop. Apple has an unparalleled CPU team thanks to years of iPhone work based on the company’s acquisition of PA Semi. Apple started making its own GPUs in 2017 with the iPhone X and the M1 GPU is pretty good. Apple doesn’t have a modem solution on the market yet (its phones use Qualcomm modems), but it bought Intel’s 5G smartphone business in 2019 and is working on internal modem chips. This is a great situation for a laptop chip. You want a strong, efficient CPU and a decent GPU – and you don’t really need a modem.
An AMD GPU is a start for Samsung, but the company doesn’t have a great ARM CPU solution. ARM licenses the ARM CPU instruction set and ARM CPU designs, sort of as if Intel were both licensing the x86 architecture and selling Pentium blueprints. Apple is taking the more advanced path of licensing the ARM instruction set and designing its own CPUs, while Samsung licenses ARM’s CPU designs. ARM is a generalist and has to support many different form factors and companies with its CPU designs, so it will never make a chip design that can compete with Apple’s targeted designs. In all respects, Samsung’s Exynos chip will have an inferior CPU. It will also be quite difficult to make a gaming pitch with the AMD GPU as there are no Windows-on-ARM laptop games.
Qualcomm is also trying to get into the ARM laptop game. Qualcomm’s greatest strength is its modems, which are not really relevant in the laptop space. Qualcomm was in a similar position to Samsung; the company had a decent GPU division thanks to the acquisition of ATI’s old mobile GPU division, but it has always stood behind Apple for using ARM’s CPU designs. Qualcomm’s current laptop chip is the Snapdragon 8cx gen 2, but that chip isn’t even a best-effort design from the company. The 8cx gen 2 doesn’t just use an ARM CPU design; it uses one that is two generations old: A Cortex A76-based design instead of the Cortex X1 design that a modern phone would use. It is also a generation behind when it comes to the manufacturing process – 7nm instead of the 5nm that the Snapdragon 888 uses.
Qualcomm looks set to start taking laptop chips seriously soon, as the CPU design company bought Nuvia in January 2021. Nuvia never made a product, but it was founded by defectors from Apple’s CPU division, including its chief CPU architect. Qualcomm says it can ship internally designed CPUs with Nuvia by 2H 2022.
And then there’s Google, which is looking to bring its own phone SoC dubbed “Whitechapel” into the Pixel 6. Google has no CPU, GPU or modem expertise, so we don’t expect much from the company other than a longer OS support window.
And what about Windows?
Because there aren’t great ARM laptop CPUs for non-Apple companies, there isn’t a huge incentive to break the Wintel (or maybe Winx64?) monopoly. Getting a non-Apple ARM laptop probably means you’ll need to run Windows for ARM, with whatever questionable app support that system has. Microsoft has been working on x86 and x64 emulation on ARM for a while now. The project entered its “first preview” in December in the Windows development channel, but it doesn’t sound like it will be a great option for many apps. Microsoft has already said that games are “off the mark” of the company’s first attempt at x64 emulation.
Native apps are also a possibility, although developers don’t seem as interested in Windows ARM support as they are in macOS ARM support. Google quickly finished an ARM native build of Chrome for macOS, but there’s still no build of Chrome for ARM for Windows. It took Adobe a few months, but Photoshop for M1 Macs came in March, while Photoshop’s Windows-on-ARM build is still in beta. You can of course use Microsoft Office. You’re probably stuck with OneDrive for cloud folders, as Dropbox and Google Drive don’t support Windows on ARM.