It seems that Cortex-A series processor cores, even when harnessed up in a big-little configuration, are no longer good enough to form the heart of application processors in mobile equipment. Effectively, Apple and Qualcomm have raised the stakes by going ARM architectural, and it seems others must follow suit or potentially face a power-performance penalty.
It has now been reported that Samsung is going to make use of an architectural license to develop its own ARM-compatible processor cores and use them within the Exynos range of application processors. The design work is being done at Samsung's R&D center in Austin, Texas, and is expected to complete early in 2014, according to ETnews.com, which cited unnamed industry sources. The account added that the resulting Exynos processor would be applied to Samsung's flagship smartphone.
The ETnews report says Samsung has had problems with heat and design errors after adopting a "big-little" core configuration in the Exynos 5 Octa processor used in its Galaxy S4. It adds that Samsung's architectural design will focus on optimizing bus performance between CPU cores and memory to reduce the power consumption. Samsung has not yet responded to a request from EE Times for information about this architectural development.
But if we take it at face value it seems that if you want to win system-level kudos and prizes for long battery life you will want to design your own processor core and memory interfaces. It makes some sense when you consider that Samsung's rivals are the successful apps processor providers Qualcomm and Apple.
In 2012 the top five vendors of smartphone application processors were, in order, Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung, MediaTek, and Broadcom, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics. Qualcomm had 43 percent market share, the research firm said. Qualcomm's Snapdragon series of application processors are based on the ARM-compatible "Krait" core, and Apple has its own A series of processors manufactured for it by Samsung, at least to date. Maybe Samsung has been learning something from making chips for Apple?
And what are the implications for the likes of MediaTek, Allwinner, and Rockchip, as well as for ARM itself?
Clearly what we are talking about is a bifurcation of the market. Off-the-shelf cores and the use of such things as processor optimization packs (POPs) have given a number of Asian fabless chip companies a boost in terms of design capability and time-to-market. This has allowed them to compete in some markets with the established players. (See: London Calling: Did Allwinner outsell Intel, Qualcomm?) Quite some time ago the top vendors could see this coming and responded by making use of their deep pockets to differentiate again with their design capability, and Samsung seems to be following suit.
Does that mean that, at least for the smartphone market, you need to design your own cores to stand a chance of getting on a par with the leaders in battery life? Remember most of the power consumption is not in the SoC.
And is this good news for ARM? Architectural licenses from ARM tend to cost a lot more than individual core licenses, but there are far fewer architectural licenses to be signed, and they cannibalize ARM's individual core licensing payments even if they still produce a royalty. It will be interesting to see how financial analysts mark ARM's stock on this development.
Also this also makes me consider whether the next stage in competition is for the likes of Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung to abandon the ARM architecture altogether. Given the investment in software and compiler technology, one might think not. But ultimately, with the amount of royalty stacking going on in SoCs and the ever-declining average selling price for them, the largest companies may want to take back control of what they can.