We’re not expecting to see our first 7 nanometer processors appear in smartphones until 2019 at the earliest, but industry players are wasting no time in sorting out orders for their future chipsets. TSMC, looking to be the first to 7 nm, has already reportedly secured orders from Apple and Qualcomm, pinching two of Samsung’s biggest existing customers. Clearly, this is a concerning situation for Samsung.
Samsung is expected to be a few months behind TSMC with 7 nm, but in the modern foundry business speed is everything. The company announced its upcoming foundries plans this year, with a detailed roadmap for 8, 7, 6, 5, and even 4 nm unveiled just back in May. However according to sources from Korea, Samsung is already preparing to switch plans towards a faster launch of its 6 nm node in order to win back its biggest customers.
Apparently, Samsung is aiming to mass produce 6 nm chips sometime in 2019, presumably the second half, which is when the company had been expected to be launching its 7 nm line. If Samsung pulls this off, it will be because its 6 nm and 7 nm nodes will be based on the same Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) technology. The company has been ramping up its purchases of EUV equipment and has recently decided to bring in 2 ASML NE3400B EUV systems this year, with seven similar models expected to be rolled out next year. The NE3400B supports volume production at 7 down to 5 nm nodes, and Samsung will likely be able to reuse much of its investments into 7 nm technology for 6 nm.
Although Samsung’s plans will still miss out on volume production of mobile processors for 2019’s early flagships, the company’s use of EUV technology could end up being the advantage that it needs to get back in the race. EUV technology is hugely important for reaching future processing nodes at a remotely cost effective price point.
Although Samsung may be moving quickly to commercial 6 nm, we may see a 7 nm Exynos chipset appear sometime in 2019, most likely inside a Galaxy Note model.
TSMC’s first generation 7 nm technology isn’t based on EUV, but is instead using Argon Fluoride (ArF) based immersion lithography, combined with a quadruple patterning multi-exposure process. Although this is pushing TSMC towards 7 nm faster than its competitors, the process is less accurate and requires a longer processing time than EUV, which makes TSMC’s option more expensive.
TSMC is working on its own EUV technology for a second generation 7 nm production node and future 5 nm chips, which may appear in time for a 2020 refresh. However, this means that there is a small window of opportunity where Samsung could capitalize on being the first foundry with a more cost effective and more power efficient 6 nm EUV process, hence the accelerated plans in order to win back its biggest customers.
Thanks to quick adoption of EUV technology, Samsung may have small window to market a more cost effective and more power efficient 6 nm EUV process to chip designers.
For smartphone chips, this will likely cause some interesting discussions. It’s looking increasingly likely that 2019 flagship chipsets from Apple and Qualcomm will be built on TSMC’s 7 nm process, which means that Samsung’s own competing Exynos products may still be based on 10 nm or a 8 nm shrink of its current FinFET design. This might end up giving us enthusiast consumers an extra pause for thought when it comes to appraising the best chips for performance and battery life.
Reports are also suggesting that Samsung is planning to mass-produce one 7 nm Exynos chip before making the switch to 6 nm, which I can only imagine will arrive in time for 2019’s Galaxy Note launch. If that’s the case, Samsung will have to target 2020 flagship chipsets from Qualcomm and the like for its 6 nm manufacturing capabilities, by which point TSMC may have closed the gap once again.
Interesting times are ahead for mobile processor products, and the battle between Samsung and TSMC is only looking to intensify as the companies race beyond 7nm.