Samsung teases investment to get into the GPU game

Analysis Samsung has teased its entry into the GPU industry, but its plans are obscure.

News of the Korean giant's intention to build GPUs emerged in its FY 2023 Corporate Governance Report [PDF], which records a March 19, 2024, meeting of its Management Committee during which "Investment in GPU business" was approved.

Aside from that? Crickets.

So let's ponder what Samsung could be up to here.

One possibility is readying its foundry business to build GPUs. Samsung is the world's second-largest foundry business by revenue, behind TSMC. With demand for AI accelerators currently strong and Samsung seeking to grow its foundry business, investing in tooling to build GPUs seems an obvious step. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang has often praised TSMC's capabilities, especially as GPUs and associated products have very long supply chains. Samsung matching those capabilities to give Nvidia and other GPU-makers another source of semiconductor manufacturing capability makes good sense - especially given TSMC's Taiwan home is subject to unique geopolitical risk.

Building its own GPUs for mobile devices is another possibility. Samsung already bakes GPUs into its Exynos SoCs but its most recent model 2400 includes an Xclipse 940 GPU built on AMD's RDNA 3 architecture. The Korean giant uses Exynos silicon in many products, but famously mixes its own silicon and Qualcomm's across its range of flagship Galaxy S devices. Korean media report Samsung will in 2025 debut an Exynos that it believes will outperform Qualcomm's wares, and the rumor mill suggests 2026's Exynos models will add a Samsung-developed GPU.

Apple's long dominance of the smartphone industry demonstrates that controlling more of a device's hardware and software stack can pay off. Samsung is all-in on Android, so likely won't control the OS in the same way Apple does. But if the Chaebol builds more of the silicon in its devices, it would have a chance to further tailor products to its desires - perhaps enhancing their on-device AI capabilities and/or making them more impressive gaming machines.

South Korea's government may have recently exhorted its chipmakers to make more than memory, but Samsung building standalone GPUs seems unlikely. The manufacturing titan has never indicated it intends to become a CPU or SoC vendor, never mind a GPU vendor. It could conceivably take a shortcut to the GPU market by building kit compatible with Nvidia's CUDA software development tool, but Jensen Huang's outfit is not happy that Chinese companies have done so and would have more legal levers to pull in Korean than in China if it decided to deter such an effort.

Then there's the fact that high-end GPUs are hard to build, as Intel has discovered. Samsung would also know that if even Intel - which has decades of experience building hardware and software ecosystems - finds GPUs a tough market, its own efforts would face many obstacles. ®

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