As Exynos 5 Octa heads to production, less power-hungry smartphone chips could be in Samsung's game plan

Some say the eight-core chip has problems with overheating

By Jennifer Chang, IDG News Service |  Hardware

Samsung' 8-core Exynos 5 Octa processor, which goes into mass production starting Monday, has drawn criticism for power consumption that may be excessive for smartphones, leading to speculation that the next chip Samsung creates for its phones may have fewer cores and a more energy-efficient architecture.

Only about 30 percent of initial shipments of Samsung's new flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4, will be powered by the eight-core chip, said chip analysts in Seoul. Most will use U.S. competitor Qualcomm's Snapdragon CPU.

The Exynos 5 Octa chip uses ARM's big.LITTLE configuration, which switches between high-powered cores to execute big tasks and lower-power cores to perform small ones, depending on the workload.

A scenario in which Samsung implements the architecture in a four- or six-core chip is plausible, according to analysts. A future Exynos might have three big high-powered cores and three little lower-power cores, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"Since only a few of the cores in this configuration are being used at once, the current 8-core Exynos 5 Octa actually functions as a quad-core chip," Brookwood said. "And Samsung could create such designs for its smartphones with even fewer cores acting at the same time to correct the Exynos 5 Octa's performance problems."

"If there's a legitimate problem with the Exynos 5 Octa, it would make sense for Samsung to create a quad-core chip to reduce power consumption in its smartphones," said Dean McCarron, president of Mercury Research. While that would result in a reduction in performance, that would have less of an impact in a smartphone than other devices, he said. Meanwhile, the eight-core chip "would be a fine fit in their Galaxy line of tablets because there's significant battery capacity" in those devices, and tablets aren't judged on battery life the same way that phones are, he added.

It remains to be seen whether the anecdotal reports of Exynos 5 Octa problems are more than transient. It is possible that Octa 5 chips being criticized for overheating could be beta parts still being tested, according to Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research. The chips could be overclocked, or possibly lacking the right power management IC or firmware. Until the Octa 5 is in devices, it is difficult to know whether there are problems, he said.

A securities analyst sees Samsung working to repair problems with the Exynos 5 Octa over the next six months, in time for the chip to be used this fall in Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Note 3 phablet.

"Samsung will also attempt to develop a totally new chip for its smartphone lineup, but that will take time. It won't happen before the company replaces the Galaxy S4 with a newer model," said Kim Ji-woong, a chip analyst at E-Trade Securities in Seoul.

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