Qualcomm confirmed today at their Mobile World Congress announcement today what I had expected, and that was that they will introduce a new custom CPU core in 2015. Around 10 days back, Qualcomm announced new 4XX and 6XX SnapDragon SoCs with ARM’s A72 core which I wrote about here. They positioned the A72 as mid-range, so that just begged the question of what would be in a new 8XX SoC.
Details are sparse, but Qualcomm has confirmed that the new core will be called ‘Kryo’, will be a custom and not an ARM Holdings off the shelf core, will be 64-bit, will be manufactured on a FinFET process, and would sample in the second half on 2015. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 will also be the first SoC to take advantage of their new cognitive computing platform, ‘Zeroth’, which I wrote extensively about here.
What isn’t known is the exact geometry used in the FinFET-based design, the graphics, the DSP, the modem or expected ship dates. If the 820 is anything like previous designs, I would expect to see phones with the 820 six to nine months after first samples, so best case we see an 820-based phone in December 2015, worst case October 2016. I actually think we will see the 820 and devices based on the 820 this time next year at MWC. I’m sure Qualcomm has answers to all of these questions, but they just don’t want to give their competitors a leg up.
Kryo will once again place Qualcomm in the unique position of being the only merchant silicon provider of smartphone SoCs to invest in a custom CPU core. Apple, of course, has their own custom CPU cores, but doesn’t sell them to other handset makers. Intel licensed their x86 CPU cores to Rockchip and Spreadtrum, but limited it to those two.
Custom CPU cores can bring a lot of benefit to an SoC developer, but are also very difficult to do as well. This could enable Qualcomm to once again hold the highest CPU performance crown, but they’ll have to contend with Apple who will undoubtedly be on their A9 and A9X SoCs. Custom CPU cores can also help you with power, as, unlike with an off the shelf ARM core, you can tweak everything, including process and design to get better power characteristics. And believe it or not, while the up-front ARM licensing fee to do a custom core is gigantic, spread out across 100s of millions of SoCs, can be cheaper than licensing a soft or hard design from ARM Holdings.
It’s nice to see Qualcomm once again do their own custom CPU cores again. They under-estimated the marketing power of 64-bit capability which took them off their custom CPU game for a while, forcing them to license ARM cores like all of their competitors. They remained competitive by leveraging their expertise in modems, GPUs, DSPs, fixed function controllers like video and heterogeneous hardware and software integration, but they’re back on track with Kryo and ready to prove they can sit on the top of the CPU stack again. It won’t be easy as both Apple and Intel want to sit on top, too.