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Samsung, TSMC Locked In Processor Shrinking Battle

December 7, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Today’s mobile chipset designers and manufacturers are locked in an industry battle with many fronts. One of these fronts is the race for performance, whereby chip makers are striving to design and build mobile System-on-Chips that offer higher and higher levels of performance combined with using less power and as a consequence, producing less heat. ARM Holdings’ evolution of the reference application processor cores – such as the ARM Cortex-A72 and newly announced ARM Cortex-A35 – is one way that chipset designers can enhance performance across the board. Another way is through ingenious designs, that is, coming up with new ways to combine different families of application cores – which is something of a MediaTek speciality with designs such as the ten-core Helio X20. Other manufacturers are working on their own customized application core designs, such as Qualcomm and Samsung, but all manufacturers are working towards smaller chips.

The reason for this push towards smaller sizes is because in the semiconductor world. small is beautiful. In simple terms, the smaller the process size, the more efficient the design is, everything else being equal. Smaller chips require a lower voltage in order to be driven, and power is proportional to the square of the voltage being applied. This means that a relatively small reduction in the voltage applied to a chip can result in a noticeable difference in the power consumed by the chip. On the subject of power consumed, heat is a waste product of a processor and must be dissipated from the processor into the chassis, which in turn needs to exhaust the heat into the environment. Current mobile chipset technology has reached the 14nm point, as both Intel and Samsung have mobile System-on-Chips constructed using this process size. Many current chipsets are built on a 20nm or 28nm process size, and older chipsets were built on larger process sizes. However, whilst chips built on a 14nm process size use noticeably less power than chips from just two years ago built on a 28nm or 32nm process size, the chipset manufacturers foundries are working towards building chipsets at even smaller sizes: the next size is likely to be the 10nm point.

Today, a report issued from Business Korea, cites that Samsung have a technological advantage compared with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, and are likely to release their 10nm processor technology before the competition. This follows how the TSMC have bought an expensive electronic design automation tool designed to optimize the production of new generation, 10nm chips. Samsung, however, appear to be thinking along the same lines and have purchased a similar electronic automation tool from Synopsys Inc., which is claimed can manufacture modern generation chips up to ten times quicker than traditional manufacturing techniques. Samsung has stated that it has not accelerated its plans to manufacture 10nm chips by the end of 2016, but industry experts are predicting that Samsung will catch up with TSMC, which has predicted it will start manufacturing smaller chips by the third quarter 2016. Both of these projections are ahead of Intel, which does not expect to start manufacturing 10nm Cannonlake chips until the middle of 2017. However, neither Samsung nor TSMC are competing against Intel, but are instead vying for the attention of Apple, the biggest mobile System-on-Chip customer in the market; the next generation iPhone is expected to use a 10nm Apple-designed processor.