Samsung's Exynos ARM Chip: Google's Android tablet Messiah

Samsung's Exynos ARM Chip: Google's Android tablet Messiah

Summary: Samsung's home-grown ARM-based System on a Chip, display technology and flash memory will provide the vertical integration to make full-size Android tablets cheaper than ever.

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This week, Google had planned a new Android press event to occur on Monday, the 29th of October in New York City. Unfortunately, due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy (aka the "Frankenstorm") that event has been cancelled.

However, a lot of news about what was due to be announced at that event has already leaked to the public. An updated 32GB Nexus 7 with mobile data service options as well as a new Nexus 4 handset (manufactured by LG Electronics) is due for release shortly.

(Editor's Note: Full ZDNet coverage of Google's October 2012 Nexus product announcements can be found here)

But the most significant product that was due to be announced by Google at that event was a new 10" Android tablet known as the Nexus 10.

Great, more Android tablets, you say. What's so special about this one?

Besides the obvious software update (to Android 4.2, previously referred to as "Key Lime Pie" but is now just referred to as an incremental release of "Jelly Bean") this is the first known 10" tablet to utilize Samsung's Exynos 5 System on a Chip (SoC).

Samsung tablets and smartphones, for the most part have used chips that were designed by other companies, this despite the fact that Samsung is a leading contract SoC component manufacturer/foundry in and of itself.

Historically, Samsung has manufactured the A-series SoCs for Apple's iPhone and iPad, but has not been able to use those chip designs for their own products.

In the wake of the ongoing legal issues betwen the two companies, Apple is expected to transition most of its chip manufacturing to TSMC, a Taiwanese-based semiconductor firm, which is notable for being the primary foundry for the NVIDIA Tegra 3 and the Qualcomm Snapdragon, both of which are heavily used in Android tablet products.

While this sounds like a huge loss, Apple only represents approximately five percent of the Korean electronics giant's operating profit.

Although the company has been producing its own branded semiconductors for over a decade, it has only been very recently that Samsung's home-grown chip, the Exynos, has been used in Samsung-branded full-size tablets.

To date, the Exynos SoC has been used on some, but not all of the company's smartphones.

The first Android tablet that used Samsung's own Exynos chip was the original 7" Galaxy Tab, which was a single-core design.

But Samsung tablets and smartphones for the most part have used chips that were designed by other companies, this despite the fact that Samsung is a leading contract SoC component manufacturer/foundry in and of itself.

For example, the Galaxy Nexus as well as the first and second-generation Galaxy Tab used Texas Instruments' OMAP, and the North American version of the best-selling Galaxy S3 uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon. Both of which were manufactured under license using Samsung's own chip foundries.

The Exynos 4, which is manufactured using a 32-nanometer process and is avaliable in both dual and quad-core configurations, has most recently made its way into the Japanese version of the Galaxy S3 as well as the Galaxy Note "Phablet".

The Galaxy Note 10.1, which has only had lukewarm success in the North American market, was the only mass-market 10" tablet to use an Exynos 4.

Dual-core, fourth-generation Exynos chips were also used in Samsung's popular Galaxy S II smartphone.

The newest version of the dual-core chip, the Exynos 5, or 5250, is clocked at 1.7Ghz and utilizes the latest-generation ARM Cortex-A15 architecture, with an onboard ARM Mali T604 quad-core graphics processing unit (GPU)

The Exynos 5 has recently made its way into the latest generation Samsung Chromebook, which has been heralded as a major achievement for the company primarily because the device has the distinction of using mostly all Samsung components -- the SoC, the RAM, the display unit, flash storage and battery -- and costs only $250.

According to recent reports, Google's Nexus 10 is going to use the same Exynos 5 SoC, with a Samsung-manufactured display, Samsung-manufactured memory and flash storage, as well as Samsung batteries and wireless/LTE chips.

As such, the tablet is expected to cost considerably less than its competitors, particularly the entry-level 16GB Apple iPad 4th-generation with Retina Display, which sells for $500. The Wi-Fi version of the Nexus 10 could cost less than $400, and possibly even enter the market at a $349 price point.

(Update: The basic 16GB Wi-Fi Nexus 10 has been announced and priced at $399, avaliable for purchase 11/13.

To sweeten the deal, the Samsung display on the Nexus 10 is expected to be of even higher pixel density (2560x1600) than the iPad (2048x1536).

While the ARM Mali GPU on the Exynos 5 isn't expected to be as powerful as the GPUs on Apple's A6X or on the NVIDIA Tegra 3, making it less than ideal for performance-hogging 3D OpenGL games, the overall chip design of the SoC is reportedly much "greener" and power-miserly than its competitors. So the battery life on the Nexus 10 should be excellent and could even rival the iPad's.

The end result of all of this is that Google, by virtue of its partnership with Samsung now has the ability to compete with Apple (and also other Android OEMs as well as Amazon) on price, making the overall package much more compelling and providing a level of vertical integration previously unseen with full-size Android tablets. 

While Android-based devices have done quite well in the Smartphone market, its tablet marketshare for full-sized devices has been relatively lackluster, mainly because OEMs such as Samsung have yet to be able to price them cheap enough or provide comparable feature sets in a complete package to what exists on the current generation iPad.

The Exynos 5 SoC combined with Samsung's vertical integration and other manufacturing prowess could prove to be a much-needed "Messiah" chip for Android as a tablet platform.

Android tablets still have other issues, such as overall inferior applications to iOS, poor manufacturer support and infrequent (or non-existent) software updates which will allow Apple to maintain its commanding tablet lead over Google's mobile platform for some time to come.

Still, lowering the manufacturing costs by using all home-grown components as well as being a Google Experience device could give the Nexus 10 as well as Samsung some much needed competitive advantages.

Will the Exynos 5 and the home-grown components in the Nexus 10 be the savior of Samsung and Google in an Apple-dominated tablet market? Talk Back and Let Me Know. 

Topics: Tablets, Android, Google, iOS, iPad, Samsung

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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23 comments
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  • Will also enable Samsung to make cheaper WinRT tablets as well.

    And hopefully with their displays they'll be able to turn out a 7" WinRT tablet too. Im sure WinRT will run much faster on these samsung arms than android will.
    Johnny Vegas
    • Short term, no. Longer term, yes.

      I don't think the Exynos 5 is powerful enough to drive a Windows RT system. The Surface struggles enough with the Tegra 3, and really needs a 4GB of onboard memory rather than a 2GB along with a faster GPU. Exynos 5 or 6 is probably a good candidate for Windows RT, though.

      Entirely possible we'll see very inexpensive Windows 8 phones with Exynos 5, though.
      jperlow
      • I don't know...

        I don't know if I would entirely agree. Of course, we have to wait till the Exynos gets in your labs and you can test its performance, as far as the Tegra 3 is concerned, I don't really think that the Surface is sluggish. Yes, it takes more time to open apps and has lower browser scores, it may just be that RT, being a new platform, just requires some more optimisations. I mean, Ed Bott did write an article recently about how Office was quite sluggish but after an update has improved greatly.
        Anonymous1a
      • JPerlow: The Tegra 3 is a dog of a processor.

        When compared to the Exynos 5 (A15 or custom) and custom A6 designs. The Tegra 3 GPU and memory designs are substandard and the Exynos, even with the under-powered (for a 2560X1600 display unless we are talking a pentile when it is really closer to 1900X1400) MaliT604.

        I suspect the Exynos 5 series would be great RT processors.
        Bruizer
      • nVidia vs. Exynos

        The Tegra 3 has issues. Unlike most of the A-series from Apple, the TI OMAP, and at least some of the Exynos, the Tegra 3 has only the single 32-bit memory channel; the others have dual channel (Intel's Atom for tablets, the Z2760, is CPU-wise a performance match to the Cortex A9, but has dual 64-bit memory channels).

        To make things worse, the Surface is using the slower T30 version of the Tegra 3, which limits clock speed to 1.4GHz (though they may be running at 1.2GHz) and locks you into DDR2 memory. T33 chips, such as used in the ASUS Transformer Infinity, clock up to 1.7GHz and can offer over twice the memory performance using DDR3 memory.

        Most other SOCs are still using DDR2 as well, but when you have twice the bus bandwidth, that's less of a concern.

        And of course, the ARM Cortex A9 was the leading ARM until recently. It should be about as fast per cycle as the Z2760, but then again, they're usually running a bit slower. But first with Qualcomm's Krait CPU core, then with Apple's custom "A15-class" core in the iPhone 5 and iPad 4, and now the first showing of the ARM Cortex A15 in the Nexus 10, that's no longer the case. Sure, the Tegra's a quad core, which helps over faster dual core chips.

        GPU-wise, the MALI-400MP4 is the same GPU as in the Samsung Galaxy SIII (international version, not the Qualcomm 2-core sold in the USA). That was one of the first smartphones to resoundingly outperform the iPhone 4S on GPU benchmarks. The Tegra 3 doesn't. On the other hand, the Nexus 10 will have 4x the pixels to push around, versus the Surface. My ASUS Transformer is a halfway point... 1920x1200 on a faster Tegra 3. Graphics speed is never an issue on anything I've done, but it could be a gaming issue.

        In general, if the machine isn't responsive enough, that's an OS thing, not your hardware on these tablets. Just look at the progress made with Google's "Project Butter" on Android from 4.0 to 4.2, or even compare iOS versus other tablet OSs on similar hardware, particularly WebOS or Android 3.0 and below. WinRT is supposedly all new for tablets and phones, but you do wonder how many of the old, bad desktop habits were around.

        The fact that Windows 7 can get slow on some UI things, from time to time, on ridiculously fast hardware, tells a clear tale on Microsoft's ability to tune the OS. I had assumed there was enough baked into the Win32 APIs from the bad old Windows 95 days to make this unfixable. But if you see the same issues on WinRT/Windows RT, that sounds like a larger level of failure. Windows 7 Phone was fast, but that was built on WinCE, an OS originally designed for 100MHz ARM9's and similar.
        Hazydave
        • Excellent analysis.

          More interesting stuff about (future) Exynos SoCs to come later this evening.
          jperlow
    • Re: Will also enable Samsung to make cheaper WinRT tablets as well

      In theory, yes, in practice, no.

      The problem is that Windows is an expensive OS compared to Android--expensive in terms of resource usage, and expensive in terms of the licensing fees Microsoft is demanding.
      ldo17
      • Right...

        Microsoft is getting $75-$100 per unit (opinions vary, this is the range I've seen reported) for Windows RT from OEMs. Keep in mind, Office is mandatory, there's no unbundling.

        Microsoft may have chosen well, going up against the iPad directly, since they don't pay this, and if they really went low price, they'd kill the OEM market (maybe they learned from their experiment with Toshiba on HD-DVD, which failed for this very problem). Most Android tablets pay a little for Google tools, maybe patent licensing; Apple pays a little on patents per iPad, too, but as with MS, not per-unit OS costs.

        Of course, any hardware work Samsung does, any chip volume, etc. applies toward Windows RT as much as Android or other things (BadaOS on phones in Asia). They'll be paying less for the hardware than Microsoft, but it's unlikely to balance things entirely.
        Hazydave
  • Hmm

    Mali T604 could be the new king of Raw Horse Power!
    slickjim
    • Won't even match the 543MP4 used in the new iPad.

      will still be behind the up clocked 543MP4 or 543MP6/543MP8 or whatever in the 4th gen iPad.
      Bruizer
  • AMOLED

    The Nexus 10 is likely to be a high resolution Samsung LCD, not an AMOLED.
    Playdrv4me
  • Was almost a good article

    Till the third from the last paragraph, then the authors emotional bias arose.

    Sigh.....
    Will JP ever be able to write an Android article without pulling in Apple and making distorted statements?
    rhonin
    • I think they're fair statements.

      I'm an android fanatic but don't disagree with him there. I don't think it's bias but rather unfortunate fact for the moment. I think the apps on windows 8 are superior and it's been out just a couple of days! Hopefully the nexus tablets will help things along for the Android tablet market. Lord knows it needs something, especially with Windows coming along.
      mitchger
    • If you would like a prime example...

      Try running Flipboard on an iPad and then try the upscaled phone version on Android - completely useless.
      jgpmolloy
      • Flipboard on Android is getting better though

        It only came out in beta this June and has already received updates to it.

        Software is constantly getting better on Android so it's a non issue.

        Let's see when Apple Maps can match up to Google Maps. But they'll never match in in features because they'll never have Street View that's on Google Maps. A primary reason users go with Google Maps.
        laequis
    • Exactly, and they're tired arguments that are not valid anymore

      Jason states that Apple will maintain their commanding tablet lead. What commanding lead? Apple's tablet market share continues to decline. The fact that Jason seems to want to separate out different size tablets into different market share segments is ridiculous. C'mon, where are you drawing the line as to what sized tablet is in the same market because technically the iPad is not a 10" tablet. The iPad is smaller than 10" but it's included with 10.1" tablets because it's close enough, I guess. Well, then how about the iPad Mini? It's constantly being compared to 7" tablets yet it's much closer to being a 8" tablet than a 7" tablet. What's up with that?

      Lastly, besides Samsung you have ASUS which is putting out great devices with fantastic designs in laptops of different sizes. The Transformer series has changed the tablet market due to it's incorporation of a keyboard dock which transforms the tablet into a netbook hence the monikor.

      Apple products have never been more overpriced and design stagnant than they are today.
      laequis
      • No worries

        You need to factor in the relationship with the customer.

        For Apple, the customers are those who buy their tables, because those people pay them money. Apple will do anything to please their customers (and take their money).

        For Google, the customer is the advertiser (and the non-name security agencies), because those people pay them money. Google will do anything to please their customers (and take their money).

        So, start from here and continue with your logic who does what.
        Hint: those avertisers and non-name agencies do not care whether they pay Google or Apple, or Microsoft, or some NewCorp.
        danbi
    • Ha! Well, If you are saying that saying iPads are still better off...

      I mean thats what he says in the third last paragraph.

      "Android tablets still have other issues, such as overall inferior applications to iOS, poor manufacturer support and infrequent (or non-existent) software updates which will allow Apple to maintain its commanding tablet lead over Google's mobile platform for some time to come."

      And, of course this also means that if Apple makes even further improvements in various ways while the Android tablets struggle along to improve, by time they get to exactly where it is they would need to be to compete with iPads today, it will of course be a far off tomorrow and iPads will have moved the bar even further, or at least thats the way its supposed to work.

      So, when you complain about some kind of anti Apple bias on JP's part because of the third last paragraph, Im not really seeing it.

      Far from JP sounding unfairly biased against Apple because of that paragraph, you complaint kind of makes you sound ridiculously over protective of Apple.

      Dont worry, I think if thats the worst criticism Apple ever gets they will get by in a breeze.
      Cayble
  • Clearly a gift from Jesus.

    Thank you Jesus; you've finally done something useful for once... Wait a minute. That's not Jesus...
    LiveAtMyMom'sHouse
    • Not Jesus.

      It's Kurt Cobain. LOL.
      jperlow