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

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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. 

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