Samsung's not-so-secret plan to beat Apple is all about leaving Qualcomm behind

Samsung Galaxy Note 20
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The last Samsung flagship phone sold in the Americas that used an Exynos chip was the Galaxy S6. This wasn't that remarkable because it wasn't out of place; Samsung had used its own chips in plenty of Galaxy phones destined for the states and even Google sold the Nexus S with Samsung's Hummingbird tucked inside.

But this was before Qualcomm had its beast mode moment with the Snapdragon. Snapdragon chips had been around for a while but before the company figured out how to reimagine what a smartphone SoC should look like and get to work on tightly integrating the best of everything needed to keep them connected, a Samsung chip was a real contender.

Of course, that's changed and now when you plunk down your hard-earned money on one of the best Android phones you can buy, you expect to see a Snapdragon inside it. Qualcomm has leveraged its smart but questionable business practices along with superior performance and functionality to become the industry leader. Even abroad, people aren't very happy when Samsung decides to use its own chips inside a flagship phone.

But what happens when (not if, but when) Samsung decides to use an Exynos chip or another brand name for its own high-performance chipset inside all of its phones? This is bound to happen and there will become a day where even in North America a new Galaxy phone will sport a Samsung chip.

While we can't know for certain, there are some things we can speculate about. And to be sure, this is all speculation at this point. Nobody knows when Samsung will decide to include its in-house processors in its best phones across the globe, but seeing how Samsung has changed the philosophy behind how it builds them, seeing Exynos inside certainly makes sense.

Samsung competing with Qualcomm can only make everything better.

For starters, this is good news for everyone. Even if you never buy a Galaxy phone, seeing Samsung decide to compete with Qualcomm in the high-end Android chip space means every chipmaker will need to put in extra effort to make its gear more incredible than the rest. When you spend $1,000 or more on a flagship smartphone, you damn well deserve to have a company work hard to build the best.

And if Samsung decides to go all-in with Exynos again, a great Exynos chip could end up in other brands, too. Remember Samsung is the company that makes the best parts inside every phone. Memory, displays, storage modules and controllers in every great phone of the last few years have been made by Samsung. Yes, even the iPhone. A super-powered Samsung processor division is good for the entire industry.

Samsung Exynos processor

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Back to Samsung, though, something like an Exynos CPU paired with an AMD-designed GPU and Qualcomm licensed RF and connectivity options could mean Samsung's own software works better than it does today. CPUs use something called an instruction set that tells it what types of code it can crunch. For the most part, the ARM architecture means the instruction set is the same across chips, but vendors can add what's called a complex instruction set atop of the base.

The iPhone is so smooth because iOS is written for Apple silicon. There's a lot to be said about optimization.

If Samsung writes the code and builds the CPU, it can mate them in a way no other Android vendor can. A huge reason why Apple's chips perform so well is that the hardware and the software have been designed to work together; everything is on the same wavelength and an Apple CPU would not perform nearly as well in a generic situation as it does inside an iPhone.

This means more than the operating system, too. Android and Tizen would certainly show performance improvements if paired with an in-house chip, but so would all of Samsung's other software bets. Samsung's own web browser, for example, is faster than Chrome because it doesn't include so many over-the-top security features Chrome does. With further optimization, those could be included and it could still be faster. It could also alleviate some processor load and memory calls if written with a specific instruction set in mind.

Everything above about better performance also applies to things like battery life, multimedia playback, and camera prowess. Right now, the simple truth is that a cheap $350 Pixel 4a can take better photos than a $1,100 Galaxy Note 20. The Note camera is far more versatile and something like a zoomed-in photo will be better when shot on a Note, but for a typical point-and-shoot photo, Google has better software magic.

Samsung LSI Exynos 1080

Source: Samsung LSI (Image credit: Source: Samsung LSI)

Samsung is a very close second. If it goes back to designing a serious smartphone chipset, it can also design a serious set of Image Signal Processors. Qualcomm has a huge head start here, but in the end, a Samsung-designed image processing chain paired with Samsung-written camera software using Samsung-powered AI could produce a photo that's Huawei-level good. Fun fact: that's exactly why Huawei's photos are so good and best the Pixel camera.

A powerful new Exynos means even Bixby gets better.

Finally, let's talk about Bixby. Yes, I know it's the cool thing to hate on Bixby, but why? Because it's just not as good as Google Assistant or even Siri at most things? Samsung is not going to give up on Bixby and you'll be disabling it every time you buy a new Samsung phone in the near future, but you might not want to do that if it were better and faster. A Samsung SoC with some extra AI chops could — you guessed it — make Bixby a lot better.

Samsung hasn't given up on building Exynos chips and we'll even see a phone from Vivo using the new Exynos 1080 soon. We don't ever want to see Samsung give up on the Exynos brand, even if Qualcomm beats it on performance and battery life and camera and everything else.

We do want to see Samsung do it better, though.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Samsung will never beat Apple because Android is holding it back, as alluded to in the article. But, even in a case where Samsung controls the stack, that doesn't mean their stuff will actually be good. Look at watches. A galaxy watch3 is 100% Samsung and, while it blows wear OS devices away in most regards, things like Bixby still pale to Google Assistant because the backend just isn't there. They have a very long row to hoe.
  • Yup, they have a long way just like alot of other companies do that want to compete. Apple's strategy of controling the OS and hardware and then designing their own chip for better optimization has paid off big time for them from the A series for their iPhones /iPads and now their M series for their desktops /laptops.
  • People keep making that statement "Apple having control over both os and hardware make things work better." That's bs and I refuse to accept it because it is giving those companies a pass for not doing their jobs properly. Snapdragon chips are use only with one OS "Android" which controls about 85% of the smartphone market. It's not like snapdragon chips have to support a dozen different mobile OS's, it only needs to support Android, and Android is control by one company. I don't see what the issue is for it not to perform as well as what Apple is doing.
  • It already does.
  • And Chrome OS.
  • Android is not a complete operating system, and every company — including Google — builds it to their own specifications. You may not like hearing it, but that doesn't make it untrue. Every phone maker could build their version of the OS specific to what Qualcomm offers, but since Qualcomm changes very relevant pieces of its SoC architecture every year none will.
  • Most of the changes those vendors do are UI/UX changes with some paint color added on top. Most don't go and make changes to the core of the OS. As much as some may want to believe or have others believe its not true. What you have are lazy folks from all involve doing just enough, since outside of Apple which only controls 15% of the market no of the oem's have another option. Both Qualcomm and Google are doing the bare essentials year after year. Qualcomm has the market cornered because of their cellular IP, Google the same with Android and the playstore that's the reality. I don't blame them because the market is no longer a growing one so why invest more resources when things are good.
  • Samsung is already beating Apple. It depends what you want. I guess you don't own a Galaxy Watch. It offers a very smooth experience. Bixby sucks no more than Siri does. It's nothing to do with the operating system. Google has al our data in ways Apple and Samsung would love but don't have.
  • When I'm looking at phones I quickly lose interest if I see MediaTek or Exynos in the chip description. The US is Samsung's cash cow. This country has a history of paying ridiculous prices for Samsung's best phones and that means Qualcomm. If they start using their own chips before they are clearly as good as Qualcomm's it may bite them in the butt. Even their carrier partners might balk at that.
  • "and there will become a day where even in North America a new Galaxy phone will sport a Samsung chip." That day already happened. The entire Galaxy S7 lineup was Exynos, even in North America.
  • That was the S6. The S7 in the US had a Snapdragon 820
  • You're right. I got my generations mixed up.
  • The USA uses Snapdragon because Exynos doesn't support CDMA which only Japan and North America uses for the most part. The rest of the world uses GSM. No doubt Exynos now supports it (again).
  • I'm sure for most users the exynos chipsets will be just fine. It's only tech enthusiasts making a big deal of the discernable difference in power compared to Qualcomm.
  • Power might not matter, but battery life does.
  • Phones still do not have great battery life. None of them.
  • For what they're able to accomplish these days it's still pretty good. Until the battery technology improves it ll be like how mechanical had drives were the slowest part in a PC until ssd drives came.
  • If a phone lasts nearly a day most people wouldn't see a difference.
  • Yeah of course it is. Samsung is still the biggest brand in markets where Exynos is sold. They're perfectly fine.
  • I fully agree with you that the vast majority of people don't know and don't need to know who made what processor in their phone. For the most part though, sales people at phone stores are tech enthusiasts. Most users trust the store sales people when they say things about phones. So yes, it could effect their sales in a meaningful way.
  • I think this would be great. First and foremost, competition in SOCs benefit everyone! That isn't an opinion, it's fact. We can all sit here and say, "samsung can't compete with apple". Today... No abosultely you are right. Apple's chips are amazing. They even beat the best Qualcomm can offer in a lot of senarios. But that doesn't mean samsung can't be competitive. You don't get into the SOC business for short term gains. I can see the benefits of samsung owning every part of their phone, similar but not exactly the same as apple (because IOS is apple). But android updates, security updates could possibly be quicker if every samsung phone/tablet were on a samsung SOC. I see a lot of potential here but honestly I don't see this happening for another 4 or 5 years. But I'm up for running a new Samsung phone or Tablet with a Samsung SOC.
  • And let's not forget about Google looking to implement their own custom SOC, which I believe they're working on with Samsung, if I'm not mistaken. This is what I'm anticipating most, as a Pixel user.
  • Yeah as a Pixel user me as well. Better an hopefully cheaper. Read somewhere They got a few chip designers from intel, qualcomm an possibly apple as well.
  • It's all nice in theory but there is one important thing everyone is overlooking... non of those guys are doing what Apple is doing. None of them are designing their chips from scratch like Apple is, they are all using ARM designs and just tweak it, both Qualcomm and Samsung stopped doing their own thing a few years ago. If everyone is taken off the shelf ARM designs and tweak them, they will be competitive to each other but not Apple. Apple's advantage will only grow because of scale, Apple now is shipping more chips per year than anyone else including AMD and Intel.
  • Who cares. Android is the biggest operating system globally and Samsung the biggest phone seller. Who cares how they compete with Apple. I couldn't give a toss. iPhones still aren't as good as Android for many despite what Apple could do with IOS, but don't.
  • Did you really say Qualcomm stopped doing its own thing to the ARM specs? Qualcomm chips are every bit as custom as Apple's are, but Qualcomm doesn't sell consumer products so they have no reason to overbuild. And I hate to break it to you but you don't need a chip designed for the iPad Pro inside your iPhone 12 mini. It's only there because Apple saves more money building one iPhone chip than it would by building a cheap chip for cheap iPhones.
  • I hate to go against you Jerry but Qualcomm are now using straight ARM design, not their own design anymore, so is Samsung, look it up. The only thing ARM in Apple's chips is the ISA (Instruction Set) everything is Apples, meaning Apple at any point can create their own ISA (no reason to do this) and they would not missed a beat. Well they would lose all the ARM compatibility stuff but you get the point.
  • I hear a lot about it, but I don't see MacOS being any smoother than Windows or iPhone than a premium Android. Android even has 120hz iPhone doesn't. I'm inclined to believe i's more of a placebo effect.
  • I tend to agree. Give everyone a random phone with a random chip inside and most won't notice a difference. Benchmarks aren't a typical use case in day to day use.
  • Well, not exactly, the thing is iphones perform if not better, almost at the same level as truly android flagships, but, with less resources, no iphone has had 12 or 16 GB of Ram, or 8 core socs, or huge batteries, that is where hardware/software matching becomes a really efficient combo
  • What about this analysis/guess?
    That Samsung is actually going to ditch Android in the future and release their own Android-like OS or...have they already with One UI? With their own amazing hardware if they can just create their own software which seamlessly work with their other products just like Apple's echo system...wouldn't that be interesting? I think they are quite capable in doing so at this point. I wouldn't mind a third competitor (or 4th if you count Huawei) in the mix. Just a thought.
  • What exactly would that accomplish at this point? Why throw tons of cash and resources (which they most likely don't have) at a solved problem. Samsung going vertical with a forked android offering will get them no further than they already are and for what? That battle took place and settled back in 2010/2011, Apple and Google won. Samsung needs to focus on the next fight (not completely sure what) not to fight yesterdays war today. Besides mobile is no longer a growing market, unless you are talking about third world or the cheapest devices (which makes no money).
  • Samsung will do whatever it takes to include Google Mobile Services. Once that's done, it (as you mentioned) already does its own thing with its own custom OS.
  • I'm rooting for Samsung. No doubt they will catch up with Qualcomm in the near future. Competition is good.
  • Bring on the competition! It's good for everyone including the competition as it forces them to be more innovative. Do I think Samsung can catch up to Qualcomm? Yeah, I think they can. They certainly have the resources for it and experience. With the help of AMD for the GPU and given enough time I think Exynos can pull up to if not pull ahead of Qualcomm. As for Apple, they customize their chips with iOS in mind so there is no hope to catch up to Apple. Now if Samsung could get its Tizen OS for phones/tablets with a viable app store then they could dominate by creating a third (and much needed) mobile OS. Not sure about all you guys but I'm sick of Google.