As first- and second-generation 5G devices make their way into stores, chipmakers are already working on third-generation 5G chips that are more tightly integrated into their CPUs and GPUs. Today, Samsung announced that its first all-in-one processor and 5G modem, Exynos 980, will begin mass production by the end of 2019, setting the stage for 2020 in-device rollouts.
Samsung isn’t the first to announce a 5G-integrated processor, as Huawei and Mediatek have both promised their own all-in-one 5G chips, and Qualcomm is expected to do the same by year’s end. But the Exynos 980 is significant because it’s designed to “make 5G more accessible to a wider range of users,” enabling the international consumer electronics giant to create smaller and less expensive 5G products. Samsung currently offers 5G only in devices with 6.3- to 6.7-inch screens, at price points ranging from roughly $750 to $2,000.
Keeping the price and size down involves some compromises. Instead of including support for millimeter wave 5G towers, the Exynos 980 is solely for sub-6GHz 5G networks and their 2G, 3G, and 4G predecessors, boasting a top 5G download speed of 2.55Gbps, 1 gigabit 4G speed, and a combined dual 4G/5G connectivity mode for up to 3.55Gbps downloads. While that’s incredibly fast by most users’ standards, it’s around half the peak performance promised by today’s fastest 4G and 5G modems. Wi-Fi 6 (formerly 802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5 are also supported.
That’s not all the chip offers. Once again, Samsung is using an octa-core processor, this time with twin Arm Cortex-A77s, six Cortex-A55s, and a Mali-G76 GPU for strong CPU and GPU capabilities. It also has an AI-ready neural processing unit with 2.7 times prior Exynos performance, now including secure user authentication, mixed reality processing, camera AI, and content filtering capabilities, plus a camera image signal processor supporting up to 108-megapixel still photos and 120FPS 4K video recording, incorporating input from five separate sensors.
Samsung has left some room for future improvement. Beyond the cellular speeds, which could be boosted for both 4G and 5G networks, the chip is notably based on “advanced 8-nanometer FinFET process technology” at a time when both Huawei and Mediatek are expecting to offer 7-nanometer 5G system-on-chip solutions, and 5-nanometer chips are scheduled to soon start rolling off production lines. In other words, it’s easy to imagine a successor chip that’s even smaller and faster than this one debuting late next year.
No specific phone or tablet has yet been announced with the Exynos 980, but it’s entirely possible that the chip will find its way into mid-range phones and next-generation foldable devices. Based on Samsung’s track record and the current state of sub-6GHz 5G network adoption, devices with the Exynos 980 will likely hit Europe and Asia first, while Samsung will either skip those models for the millimeter wave-heavy United States or replace its own chip with a future Qualcomm processor with integrated 5G.