Microsoft's next Lumia processor could edge Samsung's Galaxy S6

Rumors that Samsung's Galaxy S6 will launch without Qualcomm's powerful Snapdragon 810 chipset opens the door for Microsoft's first flagship Lumia to carry more sophisticated capabilities.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Jessica Dolcourt
5 min read

The Galaxy S5's successor could start out with a meeker chip, if rumors are right. CNET

A new chip could be all it takes for Microsoft's next flagship Lumia smartphone to outperform the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S6 's internal hardware.

Rumors that Samsung is dropping Qualcomm's most powerful processor from its flagship phone due to fears of overheating dovetail with a statement of support indicating that Microsoft Lumia phones will carry the contested chip.

If that Lumia flagship launches at Mobile World Congress in March, that means Microsoft could potentially have the more robust phone in terms of the processor's built-in features. Since so much of a phone's power comes directly from its processor -- like the rapid-charge capabilities -- drastically different processing capabilities can significantly change all that a handset can do.

The story so far

Earlier this week, Microsoft was one of six mobile phone makers to go on the record backing Qualcomm's latest processor, the Snapdragon 810 (LG and Motorola were two others). Conspicuously absent in the lineup is Samsung, a longtime Qualcomm partner.

Relations between the two companies seem rocky; in mid-January, Samsung dropped the 810 as its chipset for a variant of the Galaxy Note 4 with LTE-A support. The same day, rumors emerged that the Galaxy S6, would debut with Samsung's own Exynos chip rather than Qualcomm's.

On January 14, DigiTimes reported on this rumor: Samsung's fears that the Snapdragon 810 would overheat led to an internal decisions that Samsung would start selling the Galaxy S6 with the company's own chipset from its Exynos family instead. DigiTimes' story and others estimated that 80-to-90 percent of the first-production phones will use Exynos. Not every DigiTimes story pans out, but Bloomberg corroborated at least part of the report using its own anonymous sources, noting the huge blow to Qualcomm to lose such a valuable partner.

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge rocks a curved sidebar screen (hands-on pictures)

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DigiTimes' stories and others noted that later runs would switch over to Snapdragon as planned, but not until a full quarter after the Exynos processor is added. Cowen analyst Timothy Arcuri told CNET that Qualcomm has likely already worked out the 810's kinks. The main "problem" now, Arcuri said, is that production is two or three months behind schedule.

It's worth noting that releasing a Qualcomm version and an Exynos version of flagship is part of Samsung's usual mode of operation. What's different here is the suggestion that Samsung's movements are influenced by a problematic chip.

Although Microsoft is only one partner to support Qualcomm, it's perhaps the most significant. It has yet to release a high-end Lumia bearing Microsoft's name (after buying Nokia in 2014) and the brand suffers from the common perception that Lumia phones are less feature-rich than Samsung flagships.

LG and Xiaomi have already launched phones carrying the Snapdragon 810: the G Flex 2 and Mi Note Pro, respectively.

LG's G Flex 2 uses the Snapdragon 810. LG says that the company has had no issues. Josh Miller/CNET

"We've had no issues with the Snapdragon 810 in our G Flex2 which launched this week in Korea after lengthy quality testing," LG spokesperson Ken Hong told CNET, "We attribute that to our engineers understanding the importance of that balance. We can only assume that others who haven't had this level of success haven't put the same kind of effort into their device design."

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment. CNET has contacted Samsung for comment.

Why the processor matters

Processors are responsible for far more than just fast task-completion speeds. They can also help govern faster data transfer (if they use an integrated modem, as Qualcomm does) and lay the foundation for other features that can make a phone special.

For example, high-definition range (HDR) image processing takes place on a chip, and so does the extra-fast charging capability found in phones like Motorola's Droid Turbo and in Samsung's Galaxy Note 4. In most cases, phone-makers can choose to use a feature and can often enhance it themselves by building custom software around a core feature.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 chip makes many phone features possible.

What the Snapdragon 810 brings is the ability for the phone to handle online 3D gaming on 4K displays and 4K streaming, in addition to quick-charging and photo features.

It supports 64-bit computing, which is important to advanced mobile gaming, and runs on eight cores rather than the four cores of other chips like the Snapdragon 801.

Phones that use the chip can also affix cameras with sensors of up to 55 megapixels, compared with an upper limit of 21 megapixels on the Snapdragon 801.

Here's another trick as well: this is the first chip to support a certain type of wireless charging, known as magnetic resonance, which can top up devices nearby. By contrast, the wireless charging technology know now requires you to place devices in a specific area, like a charging pad. Qualcomm calls this WiPower, and its Snapdragon 810 processor is the first commercial product that enables it.

What's more, phones that use the Snapdragon 810 chip can also theoretically lend power to other devices, like a laptop or wireless keyboard, even if the two aren't touching.

Depending on the processor features that vendors like Microsoft or LG want to take advantage of in their phones, flagships that use this chip could have an advantage over phones that don't.

A whole lot of 'if's

There are a lot of unknowns riding on this scenario. First, we don't know for sure what Samsung will do, or even what the features in this Exynos chip are. Its latest chipset, the Exynos 7 Octa, supports up to 16-megapixels on its camera and is used in a variant of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. It's possible (but unlikely) that Samsung could unveil an Exynos chip with specs that match up to Qualcomm's chip capabilities.

Second, we also don't know for sure if Microsoft will have a flagship phone at Mobile World Congress in March, although it's likely this will happen, or if that phone will use the 810 or an older model.

Third, we won't know until that future Lumia phone is announced how many of those features Microsoft would put to use. Lastly, we can't be sure that a new Snapdragon 810 Lumia and Exynos Galaxy S6 would debut in the same market at the same time.

A new flagship Lumia bearing Microsoft's name is well overdue. CNET

My main point is this: processors are more important to a phone's capabilities than many people realize. Switching out the processor for a rival chipset that does less could also trim down some important conveniences and bonuses, like 3D gaming and 4K streaming. It can even put a cap on the camera's performance.

We'll know for sure what Samsung's plans are on March 1, and likely Microsoft's, too. CNET will be on the ground in Barcelona, separating rumor from reality.