Samsung's 64-bit Question

When Apple announced that its iPhone 5s sported a 64-bit CPU, the marketing race was on. While a transition to 64-bit -- either ARM64 or X86-64 -- was inevitable in the mobile space, Apple did it well before anybody else did.

Now, the rumors are flying, and the merchant chip vendors that ship 64-bit solutions first to the market will probably gain share. However, there's the curious case of just what Samsung plans to do. Will the next-generation Galaxy S5 sport a 64-bit processor?

That question is tricky
Samsung often releases two editions of its flagship Galaxy products -- one intended for the U.S. and an "international" edition. The U.S. versions usually feature Qualcomm Snapdragon processors and Qualcomm Gobi modems, but the international editions often sport Samsung-designed apps processors and -- sometimes -- Samsung-designed cellular baseband. So, when an ARM executive went ahead and commented that a 64-bit Exynos was on tap for Samsung's 2014 product lineup, a number of questions naturally arise.

Is Qualcomm going to lose a meaningful amount of Samsung business? Not really
Given that Qualcomm recently announced 32-bit Snapdragon 805 intended for high-end tablets, it's unlikely that the mobile chip giant will have a 64-bit processor available for Samsung to deploy in its flagship Galaxy S products during the launch time frame. Even if Qualcomm doesn't have a 64-bit capable processor, it's tough to deny that its processor designs are more efficient than the stock ARM designs that Samsung routinely uses. While a custom core is coming eventually, Samsung explicitly stated that its first 64-bit products would be based on ARM's designs.

There are a couple of options here:

  • In the U.S./developed markets, Samsung pairs Qualcomm cellular baseband + RF with its own 64-bit apps processor, and in the international version goes totally in-house.
  • Samsung's international edition goes 64-bit, thanks to its own design that it will allegedly have ready, but then the U.S .edition is still 32-bit. This means Qualcomm sells all of the major silicon into the U.S. edition, as usual.
  • The reports are wrong, and Samsung's 64-bit Exynos is coming much later than the media tends to be hyping -- Qualcomm keeps selling expensive, fully integrated Snapdragons to Samsung for the U.S. editions and even pushes into more geographic markets.

Quite frankly, the worst-case scenario has Qualcomm still selling slightly less dollar-content value to Samsung. The best case has it continuing on as it has. Qualcomm is still in good shape here from a silicon standpoint over at Samsung.

Why a 64-bit Exynos may be later than sooner
The real big clue that casts doubt on the idea of an early 2014 64-bit Exynos processor is that if Samsung had wanted a 64-bit chip in the Galaxy S5, it would have clued Qualcomm well before this point.  Qualcomm would likely have been ready with its own solution much sooner. OEMs often ask chip vendors for the specific feature-sets that they would like, so it's tough to think that the most successful mobile chip vendor today -- Qualcomm -- would have been left in the dark about one of the biggest sockets at its best customer.

Further, if Samsung truly is using a Cortex A57/A53 big.LITTLE combination for its Exynos 6, it will probably be incredibly power-hungry. The 32-bit Cortex A15/A7 big.LITTLE combination was bad enough on the power front -- the Qualcomm solutions easily had better performance per watt. But on the same 28-nanometer process node, this Exynos will be barely suitable for a smartphone without significant thermal throttling. Frankly, it would probably be limited to tablets until Samsung is ramping is 20-nanometer process, which should begin either in late 2014 or early 2015.

Foolish bottom line
The media tends to get ahead of itself at times, and this looks like no exception. If Samsung were truly ready with a competitive 64-bit mobile chip for an early 2014 Galaxy S5 launch, then it probably would have indicated so at its recent analyst day. While such a chip was mentioned, no specific time frame was given, which further lends credence to the idea that a 64-bit Exynos may arrive later than many think. 

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Ashraf Eassa has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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