Samsung and AMD announced in June 2019 that the two would team up to bring mobile GPUs to Samsung Exynos chips, with Samsung System LSI (the Exynos division of Samsung Electronics) licensing the Radeon GPU IP from AMD in a multi-year agreement. Yesterday, in a presentation for the Exynos 2100, Samsung gave an update on the partnership. Samsung LSI President and GM Dr. Inyup Kang announced, “We are working together with AMD, and we’ll have a next-generation mobile GPU in the next flagship product.”
So an AMD GPU is coming pretty soon, in the next “flagship product.” Cool. There have been some differing interpretations on the Internet of what “flagship product” means in this context. Does that mean the next flagship Samsung smartphone or the next flagship Exynos chip? Since Kang works at Samsung LSI, the Exynos division, we’re going to go with the interpretation that “product” means the next Exynos chipset, due out a full year from now. The other interpretation, that a new GPU would arrive sometime this year on a Galaxy Note, Fold, or whatever you want to interpret “flagship smartphone” as, would be very out of the ordinary since it would mean killing the new Exynos 2100 less than a year after launch.
Currently, Samsung doesn’t throw the full weight of the company behind its own SoC division, instead splitting the world distribution between Exynos and the Exynos divisions’ biggest SoC rival, Qualcomm. International users have yet to see what the new Exynos 2100 is like, but previously, the Exynos versions of Samsung phones have been so maligned that Samsung users started a petition begging for Qualcomm SoCs to be sold in their territory instead. For 2020’s Galaxy S20, Samsung also pulled the Exynos SoC from its home market of South Korea, opting to ship a US-made Qualcomm chip instead, a move that reportedly “humiliated” the Exynos division.
Along with this AMD deal, there are some signs that Samsung might be putting a heavier focus on its Exynos SoCs. The motto of yesterday’s presentation was “Exynos is back,” seeming to indicate that Samsung admits things have been bad in the past. And today, Domino’s Pizza style, the division is totally sorry about that and is turning over a new leaf. Last year, the flagship Exynos was the “Exynos 990,” but this year the flagship has a new model number scheme, “Exynos 2100,” seemingly tying it closer to the flagship Samsung smartphone, the Galaxy S21. Presumably, next year’s AMD-GPU-Packing Exynos will be the Exynos 2200, and it will debut in the Galaxy S22.
But will Samsung ship Exynos to the rest of the world?
But will any of this change Samsung’s SoC distribution plan? The problem with any Samsung Exynos news is that it’s not applicable to around half of Samsung’s user base. Typically, the US, China, Japan, Latin America, and (lately) Korea get Qualcomm Snapdragon chips, while Europe, India, and the rest of the world get Exynos. Samsung has yet to indicate that it wants to switch to Exynos everywhere, and doing so would be a major upheaval in Samsung’s product line, manufacturing capabilities, and in the SoC market at large.
Meanwhile, a better GPU is not a great attack vector if Samsung wants to go to SoC war with Qualcomm. Qualcomm’s strength is in its modem technology and connectivity patents, and it has wielded its patent aggressively enough to give itself a monopoly over the Android SoC market in places like the US. The two companies are even when it comes to CPU technology; they both use off-the-shelf ARM designs. Today, Samsung uses off-the-shelf ARM Mali GPUs, while Qualcomm has its own graphics division called “Adreno.”
Interestingly, with the Samsung partnership, AMD’s graphics division will be the progenitor of two of the mobile market’s major GPU implementations. Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs are the result of a marriage with ATI’s old mobile GPU division. Qualcomm and ATI partnered up to design Qualcomm’s first Adreno GPUs circa 2006, and Qualcomm eventually just bought ATI’s mobile “Imageon” group outright, forming Qualcomm’s in-house GPU division. AMD’s graphics division comes from a later purchase of the rest of ATI, giving us AMD Radeon. Today, you can still see an homage to AMD’s GPU division in Qualcomm’s branding—”Adreno” is an anagram of “Radeon.”