Quad-core ModAP chip is destined for budget and mid-range devices

After teasing fans with a Twitter post proclaiming "#ExynosTommorow", Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) surprised them with a chip they weren't expecting.  Or maybe they should have been.
I. Mod Rocker
Exynos is a series of application processors based on ARM Holdings plc's (LON:ARM) Cortex A Series cores.  Samsung's original Galaxy S introduced the chip line, and ever since some variants of the Galaxy S Series smartphones and Galaxy Note Series phablets have been powered by Exynos chips.
Today it announced a new quad-core Exynos chip -- the Exynos ModAP.  The name is a blend of the words "modem" and AP -- the acronym for "applications processor." The new chip is built on Samsung's second-generation 1.0-volt 28nm HK/MG (high-K dielectric, metal gate) gate-last process, which will soon be replaced by 0.9 volt 20 nm HK/MG gate-first transistors.

Exynos ModAP
Various sources had instead been expecting a new octacore Exynos, the Exynos 5433.  The Exynos 5433 was rumored to be powering at least some variants of the Galaxy Note 4, a device that was recently confirmed to feature a QHD (2560x1440 pixel) display.
Instead we'll have to wait on that announcement -- perhaps in September -- when the Galaxy Note 4 is expected to debut.  The Exnos 5433 is expected to feature the same A7 LITTLE core, A15 big core layout as its predecessor, according to SamMobile.
However, the entrance of the ModAP shouldn't exactly be altogether unexpected.  Technically this chip has been around for a little while, but is only now reaching volumes that Samsung required to make a commercial availability announcement.
The new chip is aimed at the budget to mid-end smartphone and tablet markets.  Samsung first highlighted the Exynos ModAP in one of its investors' day presentations late last year. Nam Sung "Stephen" Woo, Ph.D, the general manager and president of Samsung's "Systems Large Scale Integration (LSI)" group, presented the slide deck.

Exynos ModAP

The presentation reveals that the processor began shipping in Q3 2013.

Exynos ModAP

This is not unusual -- Intel Corp. (INTC), the largest applications processor designer in the PC space, typically starts shipping two to three quarters before it makes its official commercial release announcement.  In that regard, the news today is that Samsung has built up sufficient stock over the last three quarters that it can now start using its new 28 nm processor in its portfolio of mobile devices.
II. At Last, On-Die LTE
Much is unknown about the chip including the core frequencies, the kind of CPU cores used, and the GPU used.
The feature that Samsung is highlighting with the release lay hidden in last year's deck -- true on-die LTE.
Previous Exynos chips did feature LTE support, but they did so by packing a second tiny integrated circuit into the package.  The helper chip provided support for 20 common cellular bands, including a number of LTE options.

Exynos ModAP

But while this tiny helper chip was connected by a high-speed internal link (called a High Speed Inter-Chip (HSIC) link), the solution was less power effective and likely lower performance than Qualcomm Inc.'s (QCOMon-die modems.  Aside from the distances travelled by the connects, one reason for the loss in power efficiency and performance when moving off-die is that each IC (integrated circuit) must individually address the memory.  By contrast the ModAP and other on-die solutions typically share a common memory addressable interface with the CPU.
The new ModAP chip changes this by packing the modem directly onto the system-on-a-chip (SoC) die, a technically challenging feat that only a few AP (applications processor) makers in the world are capable of.  Based on last year's slide deck, it appears Samsung is using its own custom baseband chip, although the slide suggests other future Exynos chips with on-die LTE may use third-party baseband modems.
The new ModAP supports legacy 2G and 3G networks, as well as the "4G LTE Release 9 of 3GPP and Cat 4, at both duplex mode, FDD and TDD".  3GPP's Release 9 and [Category] 4 call for support for downloads at speeds of up to 150 Megabits (Mbit) per second (s) and downlink speeds of 50 Mbit/s.

LTE 3GPP standards
This table shows 3GPP releases by category, with their peak downlink/uplink rates.
[Image Source: "4G: LTE/LTE-Advanced for Mobile Broadband"; Erik Dahlman, Stefan Parkvall, Johan Skold]

Release 9 is a second generation LTE standard, but is not "LTE Advanced" (aka LTE-A).  It features improvements including multicast transmission and beam-forming in the downlink, which reduce errors and improve data rates versus the initial Release 8, which fell a bit flat.
Most notable about the ModAP is that it features the same complexity of on-die LTE modem (Release 9 Category 4 LTE) as rival chip designer Qualcomm's bleeding edge offerings (like the Snapdragon 610).  Qualcomm's been at this on-die business for a bit longer so it will likely have a slight edge in cost, quality, and performance.  However, that edge should be small as Samsung's process is nearly identical to Qualcomm's fab partner Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd.'s (TPE:2330) (TSMC), which is producing the Snapdragon 610 on a 1.05 volt, 28 nm low power (LP) HK/MG process.
As for the onboard image signal processor (ISP), Samsung writes:
With the advanced internal up to 8Mp 30 fps Image Signal Processor (ISP) so far in Exynos ModAP series, your device is capable of using the full quality of cameras with high resolution video recording and playback for a distinguishing user experience. 
That's well short of the roughly 25.6 GB/s (Gigabytes per second) of bandwidth that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 needs to transfer video from a 4K sensor.  Still, integrating an ISP that covers most budget smartphone and tablet cameras (i.e. cameras up to 8 megapixels) will add value to the budget-minded Samsung chip, much as Qualcomm's increasingly sophisticated ISPs have added value to the Snapdragon chip line.
III. Sometimes Less is More
The performance of the ModAP and its probable octacore follow-up will surely be scrutinized given both Samsung's prestigious position in the market, and its historic struggles with applications processor design.
Currently Samsung is the world's second largest tablet maker and world's largest smartphone maker.  The other place in the top two in each market is occupied by its archrival Apple, Inc. (AAPL).  In a way Apple's success owes to Samsung's design process, as it manufactures and assists in the design of Apple's ARM mobile devices processors.  In 2013, Apple's mobile applications processors accounted for 16 percent of total global revenue share in the smartphone applications processor space, according to Strategy Analytics.
Yet, for all the success it's had in producing the A-x series chips for Apple, Samsung's own chip line -- Exynos -- has been a bit player in the market.  In 2013 it sat in third place with an estimated 6-8 percent of the market, behind Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM) (54 percent), its partner Apple, and MediaTek, Inc. (TPE:2454).

Exynos 5
Exynos today only is in less than 1 in 15 smartphones sold globally.

While Samsung's offerings haven't been a complete failure it's in a similar position to NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA).  While not as dire as Intel -- which had an abysmal 0.2 percent of the mobile applications processor market in 2013 -- Samsung and NVIDIA didn't have the mass reach of Qualcomm, the premium cachet of Apple, or the budget-minded strong growth of MediaTek and Spreadtrum Communications, Inc.  In short, Exynos is struggling to find a niche.
Samsung's Exynos 5000 Series chips were the first to bring octacore processing to the smartphone market.  On paper the approach sounded promising: pack four powerful cores and four lightweight ones to offer greater flexibility that quad-core chips from competitors like Qualcomm.
Exynos big.LITTLE

In the real world, results of that big.LITTLE architecture have been mixed, with tests by GSMArena and others last year showing Samsung's Exynos 5 Octa (Exynos 5410) in the international Galaxy S4 getting whipped in battery life by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chip in the U.S. edition GS4.  Samsung's use of Qualcomm processors, beginning with the Galaxy SII has been a telling sign of its struggles.
III. Exynos -- a Work in Progress
And yet clearly some are convinced that it hasn't entirely missed the mark; MediaTek -- one of the market's fastest growing players -- emulated Samsung's strategy with a big.LITTLE octacore of its own.
Samsung remains committed to designing its own mobile SoCs -- or trying to, at least.  Its most recent effort was the Exynos 5420/5422, which bumped the maximum speed of both the power and lightweight cores.  

Exynos octacore
An Exynos die [Image Source: Samsung via AnandTech]

The move placed the Exynos 5422 a tiny bit ahead of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 in performance (roughly 5 percent), according to TechSpot's tests.  It still reduced battery life, but thanks to fixes to some of the bugs in the previous octacore's design, it now only trailed the Snapdragon 800 by about an hour in most usage cases.  Its biggest weakness was graphics processing, in which its on-die Mali-T628 MP6 (695 MHz) IP GPU from ARM Holdings was beat by 50 percent or more by the Snapdragon 800's Adreno 330.

Exynos 5 octa

In addition to the Exynos 5422 (which became available in April), Samsung has also offered up a big.LITTLE hexacore (Exynos 5260) and a more powerful octacore (Exynos 5800) for its Chromebook 2.  Arguably Chromebooks have been where Samsung has seen its greatest sales success with Exynos, even as it's struggled to integrate the chips into its smartphone and tablet lines.

Exynos 5 Hex-acore

With that said Samsung's 20 nm Exynos chips and rumored 64-bit designs are nowhere to be seen.  From a manufacturing standpoint Samsung certainly has the ability -- after all it is scheduled to make the majority of Apple's upcoming A8 processor.

Sources: Samsung [press release], [product page]

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