Samsung’s mobile System-on-Chip, SoC, business is on something of a roll. Samsung were one of the earliest adopters of the big.LITTLE idea for mobile processors, that is, combining low power using, lesser performance processor cores with high performance, but higher power using, cores. The idea behind a big.LITTLE processor is that when the operating system or application load is low, the lower power cores are running the show and sipping energy as they do so. However, when the processor load increases, the hardware switches across to the higher performance processor cores. These higher performance processor cores use more energy per unit of time when processing information, but because they are significantly more powerful, spend less time processing something compared with the less powerful processor cores and so reduce overall power consumption.
We’ve seen successive generations of Samsung Exynos processors employing and refining the big.LITTLE architecture culminating in the current generation Exynos 7420, as used in the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. The Exynos 7420 is one of the finest mobile processors in use today, being built on a cutting edge 14nm fabrication process (which reduces power consumption and component size), offering higher performance and lower power consumption than competitor’s processors such as the Snapdragon 810. Samsung have been bolstering their semiconductor business by recruiting microprocessor designers from companies such as AMD, Advanced Micro Devices and it appears that this part of the business is now coming of age.
It’s also no secret that Samsung’s electronics engineers are working on custom processor cores. The Exynos 7420 is based around ARM Holding’s Cortex-A53 (for the lower powered processor core) and Cortex-A57 cores (for the higher powered cores). These Cortex designs are considered as references for the architecture and many licence holders will create their own processor core design based on these, such as Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia and Samsung. The advantage of a custom core design is that a particular manufacturer can tailor the design to suit the particular application in mind. Samsung’s custom core design has been previous known as the Mongoose, or the Exynos M1 core. The latest rumors point towards the Exynos M1 having a maximum clock speed of 2.3 GHz and early benchmarks show a single core performance some 45% higher than the Exynos 7420 processor as used in the Galaxy S6. We also understand that the processor is built around a 64-bit ARM v8 compatible core and since Samsung is a founding member of the HSA (heterogeneous system architecture) foundation, it is almost certain that the processor will be HSA 1.0 compatible. This means it will be able to use GPU stream processors for general-purpose tasks. In everyday language, this means significant power saving and considerable performance improvements for certain tasks. It’s exciting stuff!
What does Samsung switching to a custom core design mean for Samsung devices and products going forwards? It should be beneficial: it means that Samsung can better tailor the processors for their particular software (or of course, the other way around). This means greater performance, however it is measured: system calculations benchmarks, user interface smoothness, 3D or virtual reality gaming performance and of course battery life. Seeing as Samsung also licence their processors across the industry, the increase in competition for the likes of MediaTek, Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel is also good news.