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Samsung's next flagship phone chip, the Exynos 990, is 20% faster

And graphics and AI get a bigger speed boost. Don't be surprised to see this powering some of next year's Galaxy S11 smartphones.

samsung-galaxy-note-10-plus-19

Some models of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 use Samsung's Exynos 9825 chip, but the electronics giant has a faster new model, the Exynos 990.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you buy next year's flagship Samsung Galaxy phone, it might come with a performance boost from a new processor the Korean electronics giant announced Wednesday. The Exynos 990 is 20% faster at executing ordinary processing tasks, 20% faster handling graphics and double the speed at software tuned for the chip's AI acceleration circuitry.

Oh, and it should do that while consuming less power, said Jeff Arnold, a chip executive for Samsung's chip design group. The company unveiled the Exynos 990 at its Samsung Tech Day event Wednesday, but CNET has exclusive details. 

Samsung has cemented its position as the top Android smartphone maker. But delivering steady performance improvements is crucial to keeping customers coming back. And it's a tough fight. Samsung Mobile -- separate from the Samsung LSI business unit where engineers design the Exynos chips -- also uses processors from Qualcomm.

And it takes a lot of work to design chips. "I'm not sure if Samsung can sustain its own CPU core designs," said Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell.

The most likely place you'll see a new Exynos 990 is in next year's flagship phone -- the Galaxy S11, if the company keeps up with current naming conventions. Arnold wouldn't comment on  the possibility, a decision that's up to his Samsung Mobile colleagues. But the timing is right: Samsung LSI's new Exynos chips should emerge from Samsung's chip factories this year, in time for the new phones that typically arrive in the first quarter of the following year.

Samsung also announced an accompanying 5G modem chip, the Exynos Modem 5123, and a host of memory chip improvements that should make it cheaper and easier on your battery to stuff your phone full of high-speed RAM and longer-term flash storage.

Exynos 990 with 8 processor cores

The Exynos 990 has eight CPU brains: two of Samsung's custom processor cores, two Arm Cortex A76 cores and four lower-power Arm A55 cores for low-priority tasks and idle moments when your phone is tucked in a pocket or purse.

It'll support a fast 120Hz refresh rate on phone screens, a technology that consumes more battery power than conventional 60Hz displays but offers smoother animations, scrolling and gaming.

The Exynos 990 is adapted for the smartphone photography push embodied by phones like Apple's iPhone 11, Google's Pixel 4 and Huawei's P30 Pro. It can handle up to six cameras, Arnold said, though only three at once. Its image processor has enough power to cope with Samsung's recently announced 108-megapixel image sensor.

It replaces last year's Exynos 9820 used in the Galaxy S10 and an update built with a newer manufacturing process, the Exynos 9825 used in the stylus-equipped Galaxy Note 10. Both the 990 and 9825 are built with Samsung's new 7nm manufacturing process, a miniaturization step that employs an advanced chip-etching technology called extreme ultraviolet (EUV).

Samsung's new 5G modem

The Exynos Modem 5123 brings 5G network connections to phones and can accompany the 990. Among its improvements are a boost in peak speed to 8.36 gigabits per second from from 3Gbps in the last-gen modem.

In Samsung LSI's perfect world, it would sell chips to other companies than its corporate parent. It's convinced Chinese smartphone makers Motorola and Vivo to buy its 5G modem chips, and the company has its eye on the automotive market, too. It already sells other chip products, like image sensors and display controllers, more broadly.

"We're already pretty well diversified in other areas of the portfolio," Arnold said. The Exynos processors and modem chips "are the latest to begin that journey."

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