In the first part of our series on ARM, we mentioned that with every major microprocess design ARM tries to choose 3 licensees to get early access to technology. It's very clear that Samsung was among the early three to get ahold of Cortex A15 IP. Samsung was first on the mobile market with a Cortex A15 based SoC: the Exynos 5250 (aka Exynos 5 Dual). Featuring two cores running at up to 1.7GHz paired with an ARM Mali-T604 GPU, we first met the Exynos 5250 in Samsung's own Chromebook XE303 last October.

The next logical step would be a quad-core version, which we sort of got with the Exynos 5410 - or as it's more commonly known: Exynos 5 Octa. This part features four ARM Cortex A15 cores running at up to 1.6GHz and four ARM Cortex A7 cores running at up to 1.2GHz in a configuration ARM calls big.LITTLE. The specific implementation of big.LITTLE on Exynos 5410 is known as Cluster Migration; either the four Cortex A15 cores or four Cortex A7 cores can be active, but not both and not an arbitrary combination of cores from each island. They're either all on or all off. This is by far the easiest to implement from a software perspective, but is obviously the less interesting option from a heterogeneous SMP perspective. I'll  be talking more about this in an upcoming ARM piece.

On the graphics front, Samsung moved to Imagination Technologies for the Exynos 5410 - implementing a PowerVR SGX 544MP3 setup. The Exynos 5410 saw limited use, appearing in some international versions of the Galaxy S 4 and nothing else. Part of the problem with the design was a broken implementation of the CCI-400 coherent bus interface that connect the two CPU islands to the rest of the SoC. In the case of the 5410, the bus was functional but coherency was broken and manually disabled on the Galaxy S 4. The implications are serious from a power consumption (and performance) standpoint. With all caches being flushed out to main memory upon a switch between CPU islands. Neither ARM nor Samsung LSI will talk about the bug publicly, and Samsung didn't fess up to the problem at first either - leaving end users to discover it on their own. 

Last week Samsung teased a new, improved Exynos 5 Octa - the Exynos 5420. Today we got the first details of the new SoC. The base CPU architecture remains unchanged. Samsung outfitted the Exynos 5420 with four A15s and four A7s, presumably in the same Cluster Migration big.LITTLE configuration. Clock speeds on both clusters are a bit higher now, 1.8GHz is the top speed for the Cortex A15 cores while 1.3GHz is where the A7s top out. Note that on the Cortex A15 side this exceeds where even ARM recommends clocking Cortex A15 for smartphones as far as power efficiency is concerned, but it should be fine for tablets. There's no word on whether or not the CCI-400 bug has been fixed, but I can only assume that it has been otherwise it'd be senseless to do another Exynos 5 Octa release this close to the original. Update: It looks like the CCI bug has been fixed.

Exynos 5 Comparison
SoC 5250 5410 5420
Max Number of Active Cores 2 4 4 (?)
CPU Configuration 2 x Cortex A15 4 x Cortex A15 + 4 x Cortex A7 4 x Cortex A15 + 4 x Cortex A7
A15 Max Clock 1.7 GHz 1.6GHz 1.8GHz
A7 Max Clock - 1.2GHz 1.3GHz
GPU ARM Mali-T604 MP4 Imagination PowerVR SGX544MP3 ARM Mali-T628 MP6
Memory Interface 2 x 32-bit LPDDR3-1600 2 x 32-bit LPDDR3-1600 2 x 32-bit LPDDR3-1866
Process 32nm HK+MG 28nm HK+MG 28nm HK+MG(?)

For the GPU Samsung switches back to ARM, this time using the Mali-T628 GPU in a 6-core configuration. Mali-T628 is actually a second generation implementation of ARM's Midgard GPU architecture first demonstrated with the T604. The second generation brings higher IPC and higher clocks in the same physical area as the first-gen cores, the combination of the two results in up to a 50% increase in performance. The T604 was a four-core implementation, so we should see another 50% on top of that with the move to 6-cores in the 5420. A six-core configuration is a bit odd in that we've never seen one before, but the T628 is scalable from 4 - 8 cores so it's a valid config.

On the memory interface front the Exynos 5420 retains a dual-channel LPDDR3 interface (2 x 32-bit) with support for up to 1866MHz memory, resulting in peak theoretical memory bandwidth of 14.9GBps. 

The biggest question about the new Exynos 5420 is whether or not the cache coherency issues have been worked out. The solution remains a bit on the large side for most price sensitive tablets, but it could make for an interesting use case in a higher-end tablet. In smartphones I'm still not sold on the idea of having four Cortex A15s running at up to 1.8GHz. Although big.LITTLE is one answer to the problem of getting the best of both worlds (low power and high performance), Qualcomm seems to have a pretty good solution with its Krait 300/400 cores. If Samsung were to enable one of the more interesting big.LITTLE scheduling models in its products however (e.g. big.LITTLE MP, all cores visible at once, intelligent scheduling based on perf needs) I'd be more interested.

Source: Samsung

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  • thexile - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    Galaxy Note 2 LTE is using Exynos 4412.
  • MrCommunistGen - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    The Note 2 was surprising (at least to me) in that the SoC didn't vary by market as is the case with a number of Samsung devices. The US variant of the original Note used a Snapdragon... MSM8660 I think. Most international variants used Exynos 4210. The gist is that its still a crapshoot what Samsung decides to deploy in the Note 3 and if it will vary based on the market.

    Being a Note 2 owner myself and having used the original US LTE Note for more than a month, I'd be happy to see either Snapdragon 800 or this new Exynos 5420 in the next Note.
  • speculatrix - Thursday, July 25, 2013 - link

    my Note2, N7105 (European/ETSI bands for GSM, 3G/UMTS-2100 and LTE) is an exynos 4412.
  • aicom - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    The main memory flush penalty is only paid when switching CPU islands, so it should happen very infrequently during the benchmarks. It probably wouldn't make much of a difference unless the benchmarks were pathologically switching CPU complexes.
  • tuxRoller - Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - link

    I doubt the benchmarking would change much since the CCI bug should only rear its head whem moving between core types and benchmarks should be keeping the cores pegged mostly.
  • coolcfan - Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - link

    An article I read recently said the switching does happen during Benchmarking.

    Benchmark --> high load on A15 --> a lot of heat --> lower frequency --> lower frequency, still a lot of heat --> switch to A7 --> switch back to A15.......
  • jokeyrhyme - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    This still seems like really ingenuous marketing: calling it "Octa" but really only ever having 4 cores active at a time. As the author suggests, wake me when big.LITTLE MP is available. :)
  • steven75 - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    I think "misleading" is a better descriptor than "ingenious."
  • FowLang - Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - link

    even still, its only misleading if you dont read about it right ... everyone that complains about it knows whats really going on. so it isnt really ... its a 4+4 which is 8 cores ... they make no claim about how the 5410 has all 8 cores active.
  • phillyry - Thursday, July 25, 2013 - link

    But misleading, by definition, means leading people in the wrong direction. In this case, that would be accurate. Samsung's branding leads people to initially believe that the Octa parts are eight core, simply by its name. So, the point stands.

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