Nearly two years ago, Om got a slide-deck preview of the next-generation chip architecture expected to power our smartphones and tablets starting in 2012. Fast forward to present day and Samsung is showing off the capabilities of these chips by announcing its Exynos 5 dual-core system-on-a-chip and calling it the world’s first to use the Cortex-A15 design.
For perspective, most of the powerful mobile devices of today use chips build on ARM’s(s armh) Cortex-A9 architecture; A-15 is the next step as mobile chips gain more capabilities, shrink in size, and use less power. Apple(s aapl), Nvidia(s nvda), Qualcomm(s qcom), Texas Instruments(s txn) and others are all using A9, but that’s sure to change in the near future. Here’s a video overview of the A-15 chip’s capabilities on a development product.
What’s inside the small silicon?
So what’s so special about Samsung’s Exynos 5? The chip has two processing cores, each capable of running at 1.7 GHz clock speeds. It also is produced using 32 nanometer HKMG (High-K Metal Gate) technology, which helps make the chips smaller without leaking energy. Samsung says the new chip uses 30 percent less power than the current version, which is built with a 45 nanometer process, while boosting performance 27 percent, for example.
Other improvements? Support for stereoscopic 3D visuals and display resolutions up to WQXGA or 2560×1600; higher than that of both the current iPad and my 27-inch iMac, which is 2560 x 1440. Helping to save power is panel self refresh (PSR) technology, which doesn’t send visuals to a display unless the image is actually changing or in motion. Display Port is available for external monitors from small screen to large and much like today’s traditional computers, the Exynos 5 can take advantage of USB 3.0 and SATA interfaces.
What does this mean for future phones, tablets and computers?
The future envisioned in 2010 is coming soon, thanks to the Exynos 5 and other Cortex-A15 chips in the works from Qualcomm, Nvidia and others. Surely apps that are optimized for the new chips will be snappier. And at a lower level, even the mobile operating system should be react faster and provide a near-real-time experience: Google’s(s goog) “Project Butter” helps Android 4.1 run faster on today’s chips, but future versions of Android are sure to take advantage of improved chip performance. Of course, platform makers and app developers must re-tool their software to work with multiple cores and new chip capabilities.
In terms of power consumption, displays and radios still take up the lion’s share of energy, but a more efficient A-15 chip should help a little in the battery life department. Don’t expect a cutting edge smartphone to run for twice as long as today, of course. However, you may get more “done” on a single charge: Even if the device run-time is the same or marginally better, activities will be faster.
As device owners watch (and create) more digital content and turn to video chat in lieu of voice calling, improved video capability will become essential for those who make smartphones and tablets. Samsung is integrating the new ARM Mali 604 graphics into the Exynos 5 to provide the high-resolution support for these activities, which also add support for DirectX 11, indicating that this chip could be used for Windows 8 computers. Even if not, expect advanced 2D and 3D mobile gaming as developers can use graphic engine software once reserved for traditional computers.
If you’re impressed by today’s devices, just wait for the next ones
Since this is a whole new chip architecture, the benefits should be much more noticeable than the incremental chip improvements we’ve seen with the current generation of chips. Adding more processor or graphics cores in today’s chips has surely helped bring more capable devices; Nvidia’s Tegra 3, for example, greatly improves gaming, but does so with a brute force approach: More cores.
By reducing chip size, boosting performance and lowering energy consumption, however, devices that launch as soon as late 2012 and into 2013 will show a big step up in capabilities. Essentially, the mobile device of tomorrow will edge closer to the computers of today. Will people trade in their computers for a smartphone or tablet using an Exynos 5, or other comparable chip. Probably not in large numbers, but more will make the move thanks to increased capabilities combined with portability.