Exynos Past and Future: An Old Chip Comes of Age
Chipsets are arguably one of the main components that drive innovation forward in the mobile space. The formula is simple: the more processing power you have, the more things you can pull off efficiently. In the past 7 years, we’ve seen smartphone chipsets evolve from single-core CPUs clocked at 412MHz to our current behemoths of power with clock speeds over 2Ghz and up to 8 cores–all in a 64 bit package to boot. While these numbers are usually the well-known specifications, other things have changed under the hood to ensure better experiences: architectures, die process size, type of core technology, and more. And our chips didn’t just get faster, they got cooler and more power-efficient. But what really interests most power users is speed, and the casual consumer also uses those main frequency and core counts to discern which device to buy; this means that the main focus of many OEMs is not just increasing efficiency, and not even simply increasing speed, but pumping the numbers for easy marketing as well.
While many manufacturers purchase tried and true Qualcomm chips, there are a few big-name OEMs that opt out of the popular Snapdragon line of SoCs. Some choose alternate providers like Mediatek, though you probably won’t hear much about these in most markets. Others choose alternatives from big producers like Intel and Nvidia, as seen in Asus’ ZenFone 2 or Google’s own Nexus 9. But then there are those braver (and significantly richer ones), who decide to build their own chips and tailor them to their devices’ needs or their company’s goals. Manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung fall under this category, and both have created rather impressive products using this strategy. Whether we like to admit it or not, the iPhone 6’s A8 chipset performs rather well in benchmarks and boasts decent results all-around. You don’t won’t many people complaining that their iPhone 6 is slow, either.
Now Samsung’s solutions haven’t been as “stable” compared to the opposition. They have been extremely competitive in some cases, and in some they were top-notch choices. Sometimes, the OEM has dropped the ball. The first phone to see an Exynos chip was the original Galaxy S. Ever since, their major releases have offered an Exynos variant in some form or another. If a chipset’s grace comes from the performance it provides, off the bat we would be justified in being skeptical of Samsung. The TouchWiz user interface was overly heavy and bloated for several years, dragging down system performance. They sought out to fix that in their Lollipop builds, and we analyzed TouchWiz’s 5.0 performance in the past with excellent results. Nevertheless, they are primarily a hardware manufacturer, and thus their expertise would understandably be focused on the phone’s components rather than the software they power.
So what made Samsung’s offerings so special? How did they innovate, if at all? And where are they heading with their 2015 releases?
Like we said earlier, the Exynos family had its debut with the 32-bit S5PC110 SoC, also known as Exynos 3 Single. It featured a CPU with ARM Cortex-A8 micro-architecture, 45 nm process, and it was clocked at just 1Ghz. As for GPU, it had the PowerVR SGX540 clocking at 200 MHz, made by Imagination Technologies. This chipset was featured on the popular Galaxy S smartphone that set the company up for success, and there was a revision later for their Galaxy Infuse 4G from 2011 which bumped up the frequency to 1.2 GHz. For its time, the performance wasn’t so bad, and the processor was considered a premium choice. Phone Arena’s User Review Averages put the performance of the Galaxy S at 9.1 in UI speed, despite Samsung’s usually-bloated ROM solutions. And we also have to keep in mind that older Android devices didn’t really have the seamless animations we have nowadays, as those were brought in through improvements in incremental updates, such as Project Butter and TRIM on Jellybean and Project Svelte in KitKat.
Samsung later introduced a second Exynos chipset in their following flagship iteration: the 32-bit Exynos 4210 or Exynos 4 Dual. It was one of the first dual-core smartphones in the market, and it came 4 months after the LG OPTIMUS 2X. As for the rest of the specs, both its cores were Cortex-A9 clocked at 1.2GHz for the Galaxy S2 and 1.4GHz for the Galaxy Note. The other big change was the switch to an ARM-license Mali-400MP4 quadcore GPU clocked at 266MHz: this began a long-term relationship between the Exynos and Mali GPU pairing, which hasn’t stopped as of yet except for a particular case. When it came to benchmarks, the device far surpassed the scores of the main competitors at the time, like the Nexus One, and its Quadrant score of ~3150 was way above the heavy hitters like the HTC Sensation, which had about 2000 according to this analysis. The TouchWiz 4.0 lightened up a little as well, which made for a pleasurable and speedy experience on the S2, at least while the device was fresh – which admittedly wasn’t long before TRIM was introduced. The multi-tasking experience was top-notch, but at the time, many applications and games were not optimized for dual-core processors so in that sense, the device suffered mitigated performance compared to what it could have had. The Note also had rather good performance, as it should, given the emphasis the series puts on multitasking. This processor also had a revision (Exynos 4212) which notably lowered the process size to 32nm for the Meizu MX 2 and Galaxy Tab 3 8.0.
LG once again beat Samsung in the core-bump by being the first to put out a quad-core smartphone, with the Tegra 3 CPU on their Optimus 4X release. Nevertheless, Samsung prepared a new chipset for the task, and the result was the Exynos 4412, or Exynos 4 Quad. This chip also had 32nm processes and Cortex-A9 cores, but 4 of them now clocked at 1.4GHz. The GPU was again an ARM Mali-400MP4 with some revisions like a frequency bump to 440Mhz. But the real star of the show was the Prime variant, which came with a maximum per-core frequency of 1.6GMHz and 533MHz for the GPU. This was the chipset featured on the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2. The interesting bit is that the S3 did not uniquely feature this Exynos chipset, as Samsung had also opted for a dual-core Snapdragon chip for certain markets like the US. Samsung claimed that the Exynos on the S3 was twice as powerful as the one on the S2, while using 20% less battery. The I9300 model of the S3 featured this Exynos processor and 1GB of RAM, and comparisons with the 2GB Snapdragon variant quickly appeared. The lack of integrated LTE didn’t allow for release in all markets, but the Exynos did prove to be very fast and top benchmarks at its time. The Mali GPU didn’t fare as well as the Adreno one in the Snapdragon S4, however, which started a trend that Samsung had trouble shaking off.
I personally own an Exynos S3 that is still snappy to this day thanks to the XDA ROM development that remains strong and active. But even back in the day, it was still a rather speedy phone, and all the games and apps functioned flawlessly at the time – and most still do. The main problem this phone had was that, just like it happened previously, many apps still weren’t optimized for multiple-cores, much less 4. But Samsung ignored this development, and for the third year in a row, they doubled the number of cores on their flagship again: The Galaxy S4 I9500 featured an Exynos 5410 or Exynos 5 Octa, that boasted 8 cores in a big.LITTLE architecture that split them into 4 low-power pieces and 4 high-performance ones, with a maximum frequency of 1.6GHz and both Cortex A15 and A7 micro-architectures. Samsung went back to a PowerVR GPU for this model, and it didn’t exactly fare them very well. The Exynos S4 was widely considered inferior to the Snapdragon 600 version, and many opted out of buying it altogether thanks to the issues it generated that didn’t stop just at unstable performance, as its battery life and heat also weren’t positively reviewed. The other big disappointment was that the core-count was misleading, given that the architecture only allowed for 4 to work at once. The chipset did feature Heterogeneous Multi-Processing capabilities, which would allow for all 8 cores to work at once, and Samsung teased that they would enable the feature in an update leading to better performance, but in the end, it was an empty promise, and Qualcomm’s comment on the development being a publicity stunt was rectified.
The Note 3 saw the Exynos 5420 to compete with one of the most hyped chipsets of all time, the Snapdragon 800. Both were included in the Note 3, as once again they had opted for a dual-variant model. The Exynos 5420 saw a frequency bump to 1.9GHz, and a much-needed return to ARM’s GPUs with the Mali-T628 MP6 clocked at 533MHz. The chipset once again promised HMP in the form of Global Task Scheduling, but the feature didn’t hit a Samsung phone until the Note 3 Neo in its Exynos 5260 6-core processor. The Note 3 featured spectacular benchmarks that closely rivaled that of the Snapdragon 800, and in terms of real-world performance they were about the same. The Qualcomm variant had an edge on 3D gaming, however, as its Adreno 330 GPU edged out the Mali found in the Exynos SoC. On another hand, the Exynos chipset featured excellent multi-core performance which allowed for efficient multitasking and speed on optimized apps. The Exynos CPU itself proved to be rather powerful – something spec-sheet-lovers didn’t expect given its frequency of 400MHz less – and the battery was every bit as good as the other variant. I personally owned both phones for a while, and had to settle for the Exynos one (although not due to choice). In my anecdotal experience, the Exynos Note 3 did feature better CPU benchmarks and app opening/closing speed, but the difference in 3D games and on-screen graphics benchmarks like Epic Citadel were notoriously bad for the this model, and in this regard the Exynos variant noticeably fell behind.
The Galaxy S5 was a bit of an odd case: it featured 2GB of RAM when its precursor, the Note 3, had 3GB. Many suspect that this was one of the reasons as to why it performed rather poorly in general, in comparison to the competition and even its older phablet cousin. Its Exynos 5422 processor was virtually identical to that of the Note 3, yet it didn’t really show much of an advancement. While the Snapdragon 801 was also a minor bump to its predecessor, it did manage to show noticeable performance improvements. Nevertheless, the Snapdragon 801 variant was also a little attacked for slow performance, and there’s even videos online showing budget phones outperforming it on the bloated and heavy S5’s software in some areas. While the phone was still great, and fast enough to do any job, many were disappointed as the hype surrounding this release had been one of the biggest in mobile history.
The latest in Samsung chipsets really picked up the slack, however. The Exynos 5433 on the Note 4 brought two much-needed advancements: 20nm processes that allowed for better power efficiency, and 64-bit support with ARMv8-A instruction set as opposed to the ARMv7 of previous chips. It also adopted A57 and A53 Cortex cores, once again 8 of them arranged in big.LITTLE architecture and at the traditional 1.9GHz maximum frequency. As for the GPU, the Mali-T760 MP6 clocked at 700 MHz was a much needed improvement that did allow it to push the 1440p screen it upgraded to, and at a very competitive performance level to that of the Snapdragon 805’s Adreno 420 found in the American variant, usually surpassing. The disappointment in this chipset is that the 64-bit capabilities didn’t get enabled nor utilized, and we have yet to see this power on the Note 4. While Lollipop supports 64-bit processing natively, it is still unconfirmed if the Exynos Note 4 will support this in the future. The Galaxy Alpha also was a considerably powerful alternative, and it is one of the highest scoring devices on benchmark databases, having the honor to be number 1 on AnTuTu benchmark scores.
The upcoming Samsung S6 flagship has been confirmed to feature an Exynos chipset, a 64-bit octa-core Exynos 7420 that promises even better performance. Now, the interesting thing here is that Samsung has seemingly acknowledged the performance issues found in its phones, particularly due to their unoptimized software solution. TouchWiz has been tipped to be undergoing de-bloating procedures as well as optimization and trimming to provide a better user experience, something we covered earlier as well. Like stated in the previously linked Lollipop analysis, the optimizations brought in their latest TouchWiz offerings are clear and noticeable, and it really did bring my Note 3 to the level of performance of my Nexus 5. It is not entirely clear to us whether the improvements come from deliberate Samsung optimization or from the improvements Google had made to the base Android system with their Lollipop build, but it is impressive to see TouchWiz fly with this speed, and with a much stronger chipset, there’s a big probability Samsung will deliver a smooth and speedy interface.
But what do we know about the Exynos 7420? We first heard news of an Exynos 7 Octa chip generation last year, and reports promised up to 57% increase in performance over the Exynos 5 chips. The new generation of Samsung processors will feature eight cores on their traditional big.LITTLE architecture, 20nm processes and Cortex-A57 and A53 cores and, once again, the very desired Heterogeneous Multi-Processing functionality to maximize performance. It will be a 64-bit chip, once again, and this time it can take full advantage of that given the next flagships from Samsung will be running Lollipop. The Mali T-760 inside promised over 75% better graphics performance too, a much-needed advancement with the high-resolution screens we have that will only get denser. While this is what we saw on the Note 4, it is not exactly what we will see on these newer generations.
Having a spec-sheet helps us predict some outcomes, but what really informed people was how it compared to the competition, courtesy of leaked benchmarks surfacing every now and then. Two weeks ago, Geekbench 3.0 scores of the newest Exynos chip surfaced and showed impressive results: 1520 single-core, 5478 multi-core results. We don’t know for sure if the device that was tested happened to be the Galaxy S6, but it is assumed to be, and it packed 3GB of RAM with the SoC. Now, without a comparison, a benchmark is meaningless: here you can see how it stacks up against the LG G Flex 2 rocking the Snapdragon 810 processor. The G Flex 2 only has 2GB of RAM, but when you compare the processing scores of both configurations, the Exynos is an overwhelming winner in every single stat. An interesting thing to note is that the maximum frequency of the tested cores is only 1.50GHz, and not 2.1GHz like expected.
The real kicker came today, however, when we learned about the Galaxy S6 variant AnTuTu benchmark that was leaked. The results were very impressive, and the Exynos 7420 broke an astounding 60,978 score, the highest we have seen a stock manufacturer device put out. The more powerful devices of 2014, like the Meizu MX4 and the Nexus 6, typically get around 10,000 points less than this. This 2.1GHz clockspeed beast is also rumored to have 14nm FinFet processes, which would allow for more efficient performance and power consumption as well.
Coming of Age
Samsung has had an erratic history with their chipsets. They have always been at least passable solutions, and sometimes they really shined through the many options available. But for the most part, it has been edged on neck-to-neck battles against Qualcomm’s chips on other handsets – and on Samsung’s own variants too. The chipset now covers LTE, has further improved in the process technology that Samsung’s engineering prowess tends to lead in the mobile space, and was one of the earliest adopters of both big.LITTLE and 64-bit architectures on Android which is something Qualcomm itself is mimicking now. Furthermore, their chips haven’t been exclusive to their phones, as other manufacturers like Meizu buy into their offering, and Samsung has even built chips for iPhones in the past. What I think is remarkable, however, is how Samsung hasn’t been ramping up the CPU frequency as much as Qualcomm has, and ever since the Note 3 they have settled at 1.9 GHz while the Snapdragon chipsets had 3 frequency bumps in that time – which probably helped their advertising in the American market.
Many people have criticized Samsung for their flagship phones’ performance, and many still do. I was one of them, and I could not tell you how much I swore when I got the 4.3 OTA on my S3 – an update that completely broke the fluidity of the device and forced me to exclusively use custom ROMs on that device. When I got KitKat on my Note 3, I also was disappointed at the battery life downgrade and few performance improvements. But Lollipop restored my faith in Samsung, and it was around the time that we learned about their plans to build a new Galaxy S6 from scratch, with slimmer software, less bloat, and less variants (well, excluding the rumored Galaxy Edge).
With these latest numbers, Samsung’s reported decision of mostly abandoning Snapdragon chipsets for their S6 release, if completely true, would make more sense. They can compete by their own in most categories now, and it could be a much-needed advertisement push to further develop their chip manufacturing division. The latest benchmarks show a performance boost that is admirable, and we can only begin speculating on the technical implications these numbers bring to the table. But without a hands-on with the software it’ll be powering up, we can’t know for sure. While the latest TouchWiz Lollipop version runs great on already-released hardware, the new iteration could further redesign the formula for better or for worse, and Samsung has had its fair share of void promises in the past. At this point, we can only speculate. But the history of Exynos chips is an interesting one nonetheless, and we at XDA can’t wait to see it develop… hopefully without any more sources drama…
We will report further on the Galaxy S6 and Exynos as soon as we know more!
Do you own an Exynos phone? If so, what do you think of it? Leave us your comment down below!