Too hot to handle: Samsung reportedly drops Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 from upcoming Galaxy S6
When device manufacturers design a cell phone, they typically do so with tight, well-defined product targets, power budgets, and specific hardware in mind. Because many companies introduce phones on a yearly cadence, it’s extremely important that upcoming SoCs arrive on-time and within specified thermal envelopes. That’s why it’s surprising to read that Samsung has reportedly dumped Qualcomm from its upcoming line of Galaxy S6 devices. Supposedly, Qualcomm’s 20nm processors just aren’t running cool enough for Samsung to fit them into the phone.
According to Bloomberg, Samsung tested the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 before rejecting the chip as thermally unsuitable. That core is a 20nm SoC with a new, DX11.2-capable GPU, H.265 encode and decode, two CPU clusters (quad-core Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53), and an integrated 20nm LTE modem.
It’s not clear what the Snapdragon 810’s problem is, but Qualcomm has been shipping 20nm modems for over a year. Claiming that the issue is a thermal problem is remarkably vague, however, and could point to issues nearly anywhere within the SoC. If the chip doesn’t throttle properly, or doesn’t switch to its “Little” block of Cortex-A53s at the appropriate times, it could easily exceed its thermal envelopes for certain tasks.
An as-yet undefined problem
The situation today neatly mirrors the problems Samsung ran into with its own Exynos hardware and the Galaxy S4. Back then, Samsung’s Exynos 5410 was supposed to be the first chip to use ARM’s big.LITTLE configuration, but critical problems with the SoC forced Samsung to adopt a Qualcomm solution for most versions of the phone. big.Little never worked properly on the Exynos 5410; Samsung later fixed the problem in hardware with the Exynos 5420.
The Exynos 5410’s issues didn’t cause a huge problem for Samsung because the company has a policy of using multiple chip suppliers and technologies within its various mobile devices. A significant problem with the Snapdragon 810, in contrast, could badly damage both Qualcomm and its various partners.
It’s also possible that Qualcomm has already fixed whatever issue Samsung identified, but couldn’t provide enough chips in time to meet its partner’s production schedule. While not ideal, problems with early production silicon are scarcely uncommon. It’s even possible that Samsung’s part switch says more about an overly-aggressive thinness or power envelope target than it does about Qualcomm’s hardware. Manufacturers continue to obsess over thinness, despite the fact that the need for a smartphone case instantly obviates any advantage of making a device thinner — and in some high-end devices, that’s become a problem. The LTE Cat 6 G3 (available in South Korea, but I’ve had occasion to test one) has a nasty tendency to overheat when used under load for any period of time.
Until we know more about the technical issues underlying this decision, it’s impossible to predict how big a problem it will be. A mass cancellation on Snapdragon 810 orders would throw the industry into turmoil and give both Intel and mainland China manufacturers like Rockchip and Mediatek a huge opening to gain market share. A minor blip that’s already resolved in current silicon won’t cause more than a bob in the stock price.
Now read: Samsung unveils new Galaxy A7 in desperate bid to fend off Apple, Xiaomi
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