Qualcomm’s latest flagship chipset, the Snapdragon 810, has without a doubt been a blunder and a black mark on an otherwise flawless reputation as a chipset designer. Over the years, Qualcomm has knocked it out of the park in terms of processor design, not only pushing performance to the next level in the smartphone and tablet arena but also pushing battery life and feature set further than was thought possible year after year. This year’s first big flagship from the company has been the work of its designers since the announcement of the ARMv8 architecture 3 years ago and represents the first 64-bit octa-core chipset from the company. It’s also the company’s first system-on-a-chip manufactured with TSMC’s 20nm technology, a manufacturing process that shrinks the size of the chip and is supposed to result in a 25% power savings.
We can measure the actual shrinking of the process via a gate pitch + metal pitch measurement popularized by Intel and is easily carried over to all processes no matter the manufacturer. Looking at Qualcomm’s move from the Snapdragon 805 found in the Galaxy Note 4 and Nexus 6 we’re looking at a measurement of 11,590, whereas the Snapdragon 810 found in the HTC One M9 and LG G Flex 2 is a mere 5,829. As this is a measure of process density it’s good to compare with other manufacturers like Samsung, in which case Samsung has shrunk their process from the 20nm process on the Exynos 5433 found in the international Galaxy Note 4 down to 14nm on the Exynos 7420 found in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge worldwide. For comparison’s sake Samsung went from a GP+M1P metric of 8,640 on their 28nm process down to 4,090 on their 20nm process, representing a 25% power savings as Qualcomm did on their move from 28nm to 20nm.
But this doesn’t explain the overheating of the Snapdragon 810 and why the Exynos 7420 doesn’t fall victim to this problem as we’ve seen before. On top of that the previous generation of Samsung chips, built on a similar 20nm process, doesn’t suffer from these issues either even though both generations of chipsets are build upon the same ARM Cortex-A53 and A57 cores that the Snapdragon 810 is. All these facts show that the manufacturing process from TSMC is likely not the problem, but rather Qualcomm’s fault instead. This hasn’t stopped Qualcomm from moving its manufacturing base to Samsung’s factories for the Snapdragon 820, which is likely slated to appear in this year’s Fall flagships, if it stays on schedule. Either way this is certainly bad press for Qualcomm and its investors, and it remains to be seen whether or not such a single large failure will end up taking Qualcomm down from the top spot as chipset maker in the mobile world.