Samsung’s Android Gaming Phone May Ditch Arm’s Mali GPUs

Samsung’s gaming-oriented Android smartphone may utilize an in-house GPU, established industry insider known by their social media handle “Ice Universe” claims. The possibility that Samsung is looking to ditch Arm’s Mali-series graphics chips has been the subject of countless rumors in recent years, though the scale of the potential transition to proprietary silicon remains unclear. Samsung would theoretically be happy to be completely reliant on its own GPUs but R&D costs associated with the development of such a product family encompassing solutions for everything from entry-level handsets to flagships makes that scenario unlikely.

Still, the firm is said to currently be pursuing such a project, with the provisional name of the chip being the S-GPU. This very same module may be used in its Android-powered gaming smartphone, according to the new report, though it’s presently unclear whether Samsung already has a working prototype of the device. Its exact development status is equally mysterious, though the gaming gadget most likely won’t be launching prior to 2019.

Background: The rumor about a Samsung-made gaming phone first emerged in late July, having originated from a well-known Chinese source. While the insider didn’t provide many details on the matter, they said the gadget in question won’t be the foldable handset Samsung is developing independently. While seemingly random, that was an important distinction to make seeing how numerous reports already indicated the bendable device will be at least partially aimed at gamers. Samsung’s choice of a target audience presumably has something to do with the extremely high price tag expected to be attached to the device which may retail at above $1,500, thus being a tough sell for the average consumer.

As for the gaming smartphone itself, even if it launches today, Samsung would be relatively late to embrace the re-emergence of the trend first started by Razer a year ago. Since the original Razer Phone, the industry already delivered its direct successor, whereas Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei’s Honor, Xiaomi’s Black Shark, and Nubia released their very own Android handsets targeting gamers. Taiwanese ASUS did the same several months back, unveiling its first-ever gaming smartphone as part of its Republic of Gamers (ROG) brand.

The very possibility that Samsung’s niche product utilizes an in-house graphics chip suggests the S-GPU has been envisioned as a high-end module. The Seoul-based original equipment manufacturer has been actively working on the project for at least two years, according to previous reports. Another link between Samsung’s GPU R&D efforts and the company’s rumored gaming phone comes in the form of the firm’s decision to appoint Dr. Chien-Ping Lu to helm the GPU project. The NVIDIA veteran was a key person in the development of the RSX chip used by Sony’s PlayStation 3 console and hence has a proven track record with delivering rendering silicon designed for gaming.

The first prototype of the S-GPU has reportedly been manufactured in late 2017, though the product is still in the process of being refined. Samsung is understood to have developed an entirely new architecture designed specifically for mobile applications that strikes an excellent balance between performance and energy efficiency. Previous rumors suggested the company may first test the architecture in a consumer-grade product with an entry-level device, though a gaming-focused smartphone should be anything but. While primarily developed for Android smartphones and tablets, the architecture could also be utilized in the context of IoT sensors and other embedded computing applications.

Samsung’s Exynos-series chips have been entirely reliant on Arm’s Mali GPUs for many years now. In 2015, the two companies announced a “long-term” partnership meant to bring that collaboration to the next level but never clarified the details of the agreement. Being able to use its own chips would likely save Samsung a lot of money in the long run, with licensing accounting for a significant portion of its product development spending. Still, as the original equipment manufacturer has yet to even officially confirm its GPU ambitions, a scenario wherein a major portion of its product portfolio starts relying on in-house chips in the foreseeable future isn’t plausible.

Samsung’s rising interest in in-house GPUs correlates the growth of its semiconductor division that’s been responsible for the company’s record-breaking financials over the last several years. With the chaebol recently becoming the world’s largest chipmaker after 24 years of Intel’s dominance, its GPU efforts appear to be just a continuation of the strategy that made generated so much success already. As for its newfound focus on mobile gaming, that’s something that has been brewing for a while now as even its mainstream flagship lineups such as the Galaxy Note 9 are now being advertised as gaming machines. The company sees mobile games as a way to make its ultra-premium products more appealing to younger audiences, though it’s presently unclear how successful it has been at doing so. Still, between its Epic Games partnership that saw the Android port of Fornite launch as a timed exclusive of select Galaxy-series models and the rumored gaming smartphone, Samsung appears to be keen to continue combining its mobile hardware with interactive entertainment.

Impact: Commercializing a proprietary mobile GPU would be a major milestone for Samsung that would bring it even closer to its ultimate goal of doing everything from smartphone research and development to production in-house. However, even if the South Korean technology juggernaut manages to do so next year, it’s unlikely to completely move away from Arm’s Mali-series graphics chips anytime soon. Likewise, all future Galaxy devices using a Samsung-made GPU are unlikely to be more affordable compared to their Mali-equipped counterparts as the main purpose of a project as ambitious as an entirely new GPU architecture would likely be to improve profit margins.

While the nature of the matter at hand would make it suitable for an announcement at Samsung’s annual developer conference, the next iteration of the event is taking place in early November, which is likely too early for an official unveiling. Due to that state of affairs, neither the firm’s in-house GPU nor its gaming Android smartphone are likely to debut before 2019, with Samsung’s first opportunity to introduce them on a global stage being Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show in early January, followed by Barcelona-hosted Mobile World Congress in late February.

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