Samsung and AMD have signed an agreement to license Radeon IP to the mobile giant. It’s a major move with significant long-term ramifications for Samsung as it seeks to further develop its own SoCs, and it’s part of a long-term trend towards increased specialization.
Ten years ago, AMD sold its low-power mobile graphics business to Qualcomm, which used it to create the Adreno brand. At the time, the deal made good fiscal sense for the company. Even though some analysts criticized AMD for not attempting to play in the smartphone market, Intel’s own flameout in that space proved the wisdom of the approach. In 2009, AMD lacked the resources to aggressively pursue smartphone IP development and field competitive solutions. Today, the situation is significantly different — and Samsung isn’t paying AMD to build solutions, it’s paying to license the IP stack and construct its own. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Samsung’s decision to license AMD’s Radeon technology reflects several trends in the mobile space. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more smartphone manufacturers working on customizing their own SoCs. This customization isn’t always CPU-centric. Some companies continue to rely on ARM for Cortex CPUs, but have built their own neural processing units (NPUs) and/or provided custom IP in the form of DSP and GPU blocks, like Qualcomm. Either way, the trend among vendors, including companies not typically known for high-end smartphones, is towards integrating more custom semiconductor design work.
Samsung has pursued a split strategy for several years, opting to ship its own Exynos SoC based on a custom CPU design to some international markets, but tapping Qualcomm SoCs for US products to ensure it offered the best possible experience. According to Anandtech, the current Exynos 9820 is a tribrid, with two M4 cores (Samsung’s own custom design), two Cortex-A75 CPUs, and four Cortex-A55 chips. The overall CPU design, however, is still lagging behind the power efficiency and overall performance of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and ARM’s Cortex-A76.
The decision to license GPU technology is an interesting one, because the ARM Mali GPU core in parts like the Galaxy S10 tests fairly well against the Snapdragon 855. While there’s a gap that still favors the Snapdragon 855 overall, the difference in GPU performance is smaller than the relative gap in CPU performance. The implication here is that Samsung believes it can further close the gap between itself and Qualcomm where those gaps exist.
The graph above is drawn from Anand’s review of the Exynos 9820, but be advised that the GPU performance tests show very different characteristics. In 3DMark, the Android devices outperform the iPhone significantly; in GFXBench the reverse is true.
Overall, this move should help Samsung continue developing its own IP and developing custom GPU solutions. It will, however, likely take a few years before we see the full fruits of this deal. AMD can grant Samsung access to patents immediately, but building a new ground-up GPU around new IP always takes time.
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