Potential Snapdragon 810 Delays Means New Opportunities For Qualcomm's Competitors (Updated)

According to South Korean sources, Qualcomm is facing overheating and technical issues with its Snapdragon 810 processor that cause it to throttle its GPU performance. The issue seems to appear when the chip goes from using the low-power Cortex A53 cluster to using the "high-performance" Cortex A57 cluster.

This happens despite the Cortex A57 having a lower clock speed than Qualcomm's current high-end chips such as the Snapdragon 805 have. However, ARM's own CPU cores are usually higher performance at the same clock speed as Qualcomm's Krait chips, so this shouldn't be an issue, unless Qualcomm is trying to reach a clock speed that's higher than what's recommended for a Cortex A57 CPU built on TSMC's 20 nm process.

This overheating and throttling issue could lead to a delay by a whole quarter for the chip, compared to the initial timeline for shipping. However, Qualcomm maintains that the chip will be available in the first part of the year.

"Qualcomm doesn't comment on rumors or speculation. We expect Snapdragon 810 devices to be commercially available in 1H 2015," a Qualcomm representative told Tom's Hardware.

Qualcomm has said before that the Snapdragon 810 will ship in the first half of this year, but even if that remains technically true, we may not see the Snapdragon 810 chip shipping in massive volume until at least mid-2015.

If the rumor is indeed true, then it could affect at least some of the device makers that intended to use the Snapdragon 810. For example, if HTC intended to release its HTC "Hima" with the Snapdragon 810 a couple of months before Samsung releases its Galaxy S6 to take advantage of that window, as was rumored earlier, then that whole plan could now fail.

HTC will be forced to launch the Hima at the same time as the Galaxy S6. The problem is that because the company planned to launch the device earlier, it's possible other components are less technologically advanced than the ones in the Galaxy S6. This could negatively affect the device from a marketing point of view.

It could also choose to go with a Snapdragon 805, but that won't offer the Hima a major advantage over what's already on the market. Once the Snapdragon 810-powered devices start hitting the market, the Hima might not find itself in a very competitive position, leaving HTC open until it releases another major flagship.

The delay could also be a problem for Qualcomm itself, if instead of waiting or going for the Snapdragon 805, its customers start switching to Tegra X1 or Samsung's Exynos 7 Octa. Samsung hasn't made any mentions about whether it intends to sell its flagship ARMv8 chip to other companies, but it could at the very least use it much more for its own products, instead of relying on Qualcomm as it has done so much before.

Samsung's move could also hurt TSMC's 20 nm supply this year and help its own foundry business. J.P. Morgan analysts believe Samsung could sell as many as 90 percent of its Galaxy S6 models with Exynos 7 Octa inside.

“We believe SEC is highly likely to adopt its in-house AP (Exynos) and modem for >90% of its Galaxy S6 model (launching in February), a big departure from previous years, when it used Snapdragon for >70% of the volume (see our recent report on the Samsung supply chain). This would be negative for TSMC in 2Q15 and would hurt 20nm utilization somewhat in 2Q15, in our view."

The delay could be an opportunity for MediaTek to rise as a supplier for high-end flagships, as well. MediaTek has been mostly a supplier of low-end and mid-range chips so far, mainly because it was a relatively new chip company, and big companies like Samsung tended to trust a company like Qualcomm more for its highest-end devices.

KTB Investment and Securities Analyst Jin Sung-hye said, "Qualcomm's clients, China's Xiaomi, for instance, may look for other options from companies like MediaTek if the Snapdragon 810 processor actually turns out to have problems that are unfixed. This may cause certain changes in the global market structure."

After a three-year generation of custom Krait cores, Qualcomm has opted to move its next-gen ARMv8 SoCs to ARM's own stock core designs such as Cortex A57 and A53, much like the rest of the industry. Samsung, Nvidia and MediaTek all have very similar chips now, at least in terms of CPUs. This also makes it easier for device makers to transition to a competitor, which is not necessarily a bad thing for consumers.

Qualcomm hasn't announced whether it has plans for a custom CPU micro-architecture, but if it's already working on one, we won't be seeing it for at least another year, or possibly two. The company will likely try to stick with ARM's cores for this whole first generation of ARMv8 processors.

Update [23:15 1/7/2015]: We had an opportunity to speak with Tim Leland, Qualcomm VP of product management, about these rumors regarding Snapdragon 810's performance. According to him, while there are always engineering challenges to overcome when bringing new technology to market, there aren't any significant technical issues that will cause a delay. With the G Flex 2 slated to ship at the end of January, we'll find out very soon if there is indeed any basis to these rumors.

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Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • xenol
    Not that I don't hate Qualcomm, but good, I want someone else to take a chunk of their market.

    Qualcomm is like the Intel of SoCs.
  • zodiacfml
    I doubt it. It can be resolve with plenty of solutions and it will be refined for smartphones.
    Why is Mediatek in the picture? They don't produce high performance chips as Qualcomm.
  • tygrus
    Maybe they should just release it on time but with a lower maximum frequency.