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 feature a GPU from AMD, which inked a partnership 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 laptops as well as 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.”
There’s a bit to unpack here. First, a launch this year would be an acceleration of the normal Samsung schedule. The last Exynos flagship was announced in January 2021, so you would normally pencil in the new Exynos for early next year. Second, the report goes out of its way to specify that the laptop chip will have an AMD GPU, so… not the smartphone chip?
It was always questionable that Samsung was planning to beef up its Exynos smartphone chips, since the company splits its flagship smartphone lineup 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 that leave the Qualcomm phones? Would Samsung ditch Qualcomm? That’s hard to believe, and it sounds like the easy answer is for the company to just not dramatically change the Exynos smartphone chips.
For laptops, Samsung has to chase down its favorite rival, Apple, which is jumping into ARM laptops with its M1 chip. If Samsung wants its products to have any hope of being competitive with Apple laptops, it would have to launch its own ARM laptop SoC. Getting AMD onboard 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 like it would lead to a complete, competitive product.
What about the CPU?
Even if we suppose everything goes right with Samsung’s AMD partnership and the company gets a top-tier SoC GPU, the kind of chip Samsung seems to be producing is not what you would draw up for use in a great laptop. The three big components in an SoC are the CPU, GPU, and modem. It seems like everyone is investing in SoC design, and some companies are better positioned to produce a competitive chip than others.
Of course, everybody is chasing Apple’s M1 SoC, but Apple’s expertise lines up well with what you would want from a laptop. Apple has a world-beating CPU team thanks to years of iPhone work based on the company’s acquisition of PA Semi. Apple started making its own GPUs with the iPhone X in 2017, 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 it’s working on in-house 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 does not have a great ARM CPU solution. ARM licenses the ARM CPU instruction set and ARM CPU designs, a bit like if Intel both licensed the x86 architecture and sold Pentium blueprints. Apple goes the more advanced route of licensing the ARM instruction set and designing its own CPUs, while Samsung licenses ARM’s CPU designs. ARM is a generalist and needs 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 focused designs. By all accounts, Samsung’s Exynos chip will have an inferior CPU. It will also be pretty hard to make a gaming pitch with the AMD GPU since there aren’t any Windows-on-ARM laptop games.
Qualcomm is trying to get into the ARM laptop game, too. Qualcomm’s biggest strength is its modems, which aren’t really relevant in the laptop space. Qualcomm has been in a similar position to Samsung; the company had a decent GPU division thanks to acquiring ATI’s old mobile GPU division, but it was always behind Apple because it used ARM’s CPU designs. Qualcomm’s current laptop chip is the Snapdragon 8cx gen 2, but that chip is not 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’s also a generation behind when it comes to the manufacturing process—7 nm instead of the 5 nm the Snapdragon 888 uses.
Qualcomm seems like it will get serious about laptop chips soon, as it bought CPU design firm Nuvia in January 2021. Nuvia has never made a product, but it was founded by defectors from Apple’s CPU division, including the chief CPU architect. Qualcomm says that with Nuvia, it will be able to ship internally designed CPUs by 2H 2022.
And then there’s Google, which wants to ship its own phone SoC, called “Whitechapel,” in the Pixel 6. Google does not have 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?
With no great ARM laptop CPUs out there for non-Apple companies, there isn’t a huge incentive to break up the Wintel (or maybe Winx64?) monopoly. Getting a non-Apple ARM laptop most likely means running Windows for ARM, with whatever questionable app support that system has. Microsoft has been working on x86 and x64 emulation on ARM for a bit. The project entered its “first preview” in December in the Windows dev channel, but it doesn’t sound like it will be a great option for many apps. Microsoft has already said that games are “outside the target” of the company’s first attempt at x64 emulation.
Native apps are also a possibility, though developers don’t seem as interested in Windows ARM support as they do in macOS ARM support. Google was quickly ready with an ARM-native build of Chrome for macOS, but there still isn’t a build of Chrome for ARM for Windows. Adobe took a few months, but Photoshop for M1 Macs hit in March, while the Windows-on-ARM build of Photoshop is still in beta. You can, of course, run Microsoft Office. You’ll probably be stuck with OneDrive for cloud folders, since Dropbox and Google Drive don’t support Windows on ARM.