Industry Voices — Blaber: Samsung forges a deeper relationship with Qualcomm

Samsung Galaxy S20 series
Given Samsung's size, scale and vertically integrated supply chain, it's significant that the phone maker is expanding the role of Qualcomm in its flagship devices. (Samsung)
Geoff Blaber

Samsung has been in sharp focus in recent weeks, announcing updates to its smartphone line-up ahead of a highly competitive and unprecedented holiday shopping season. This started on July 23 with the launch of its Galaxy Z Flip 5G and continued on August 5 at its Unpacked event, where it unveiled its Galaxy Note20 and Note20 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold2 smartphones, along with Galaxy Tab S7 and S7+ tablets. There's been a lot of coverage of these launches, and you can read about CCS Insight's views here.

An angle that's been overlooked, however, is the nature of Samsung's developing relationship with Qualcomm. All the products launched by Samsung in recent weeks are based on Qualcomm's flagship Snapdragon 865 Plus mobile platform, unveiled on July 8 with support from Asus, with its ROG Phone 3, and Lenovo, with its Legion device. This is also the first time that Samsung has taken the Plus variant of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 series for its flagship device launches in the second half of the year.

Samsung has long been a close partner of Qualcomm, adopting the San Diego company's chipsets for a range of devices alongside its own and those of other semiconductor firms. This strategy hasn't changed, and Samsung continues to deploy its Exynos silicon as well as MediaTek throughout its portfolio.

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Still, I can't recall a launch of multiple products from Samsung being so tightly aligned with a single chipset provider. After the Unpacked event, Qualcomm is now the leading supplier for most of Samsung's flagship, premium devices. Samsung’s first A Series 5G device, the A71 5G, also launched recently in the U.S. using Snapdragon 765G. Certain variants of the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Note20 smartphones still use Samsung's Exynos, but even Samsung's flagships sold in its domestic market are now based on Qualcomm's solutions.

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Samsung's use of different chips within a portfolio has been hotly debated for some time, as several benchmarks have shown a gap between the performance of Exynos and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865. It even led to consumers starting a petition on change.org, calling for Qualcomm Snapdragon rather than Exynos processors in markets outside the U.S.

Indeed, Samsung is adjusting its strategy, and was a leading supporter of Arm's recent Cortex-X Custom program (see Arm's New Programme for Custom Chips). This initiative will see Samsung move from designing its own custom CPU cores for Exynos in favor of a more structured and collaborative approach to development in partnership with Arm. I fully expect Qualcomm, MediaTek and others to get involved in the program as well.

The increased role for Qualcomm illustrates the power, performance and connectivity credentials of Snapdragon 865 and now Snapdragon 865 Plus, which boosts the clock speed on the chipset's Kryo 585 CPU by 10% and allows the Adreno 650 GPU to render graphics 10% faster. This underlines Qualcomm's system strength across the full feature set of the platform, spanning the CPU, GPU, image signal processor, digital signal processor and artificial intelligence engine. This strength is central to delivering powerful artificial intelligence, camera and gaming experiences on devices.

Moreover, Qualcomm has invested in creating a fully integrated modem-RF system that addresses the growing complexity that 5G brings. This is a strong differentiator given the integration of modem and supporting RF components such as filters, power amplifiers, multiplexers and antenna tuners. Its investment is proving a success story, with very high attach rates for Qualcomm's RF front-end components, thanks to its ability to solve 5G complexity and time-to-market challenges. The company is fast becoming a leading supplier of RF front-end components as a result, an observation that it highlighted on its recent earnings call.

This is supported by the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Note20 and Note20 Ultra are the first devices to feature Qualcomm's new low-band 4G/5G power amplifier module (LPAMiD QPM5625). Similarly, the Galaxy Z Fold2 is the first product using Qualcomm's FastConnect 6900 mobile connectivity system, which supports Wi-Fi 6 speeds of up to 3.6 Gbps.

Samsung is just one example, as Qualcomm now claims more than 660 5G device designs that have been announced or are in development, 165 of which are on its flagship Snapdragon 865 platform. But given Samsung's size, scale and vertically integrated supply chain, it's significant that the phone-maker is expanding the role of Qualcomm in its flagship devices at a time when efficient product execution and delivery is critical.

Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

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