The Mystery of the Samsung Galaxy S5 LTE-Advanced

Samsung Electronics (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF  ) just announced its long-awaited higher-end Galaxy S5 smartphone with a Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) Snapdragon 805 and a 2560x1440 Super AMOLED display. This device touts LTE-Advanced, which promises download speeds of up to 225 megabits per second. However, this number, coupled with a complete lack of disclosure about the cellular modem chip inside, raises an interesting question: which company's modem powers this device?

Three choices: Qualcomm, Intel, or Samsung
We know the phone's applications processor is the Snapdragon 805. However, this processor -- unlike the Snapdragon 801 found inside the standard Galaxy S5 -- does not have an integrated cellular baseband block, so any phone implementing it requires pairing with a separate baseband processor.

To date, only two merchant vendors have announced the imminent availability of LTE-Advanced capable cellular basebands: Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) with its XMM 7260 and Qualcomm with its MDM9x35. However, neither player was mentioned in the announcement of the new Galaxy S5.

There is also the distinct possibility that this platform is actually powered by an internally designed Samsung cellular baseband chip.

South Korea Telecom only at first, eh?
The big challenge when it comes to any cellular baseband or RF solution isn't necessarily in implementing the latest standard, but instead in having that solution certified for the numerous carrier networks on which a typical smartphone launches. This process is rigorous, brutal, and time consuming, which is why the development of cellular/RF solutions is so difficult and has such a high barrier to entry.

Samsung is releasing this smartphone exclusively in South Korea. While this doesn't necessarily prove anything, it lends credence to the idea that this device could feature Samsung's own baseband and that this baseband has only been certified on South Korea Telecom (and will probably slowly roll out to other carriers).

If that's true, why not use Exynos?
The biggest counterargument to the idea that Samsung is using its own baseband is that if the company is going through all of that trouble, why not also use its own internally designed Exynos 5 Octa processor?

The Exynos 5 Octa offers roughly similar performance to the Snapdragon 801/805 parts, but has the advantage of being built at Samsung's own manufacturing plants (leading to higher use of its factories and lower chip costs).

That said, the Snapdragon 805 should have superior graphics performance to any available Exynos processor, which should prove vital in driving the resource-intensive 2560x1440 display.

Foolish takeaway
It's still unclear who has won this baseband socket. If it's Qualcomm, then this would also mark not only the first Snapdragon 805 design win, but it would also mean the very first MDM9x35 win (meaning the first commercially available 20-nanometer chip from Taiwan Semiconductor). If it's Intel, then this would be a clear validation of the time to market and quality of its XMM 7260 solution. And if it's Samsung, then it'll be interesting to see how far the company takes its in-house baseband efforts in the long run. 

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