Tuesday, March 24, 2015

TSMC's 16 nm FinFET sees adoption by Qualcomm and Apple, competes with Samsung

TSMC will receive majority of Apple A9 business

According to reports, TSMC will receive the majority of Apple A9 SoC orders, which includes the A9 for next-generation iPhones and A9X for iPads. According to sources quoted by EE Times, Apple had originally planned to give Samsung a majority of the Apple A9 orders, but has recently shifted orders to TSMC, most likely using a 16 nm FinFET process.

Because ramping up production of a similar chip from a second source with different foundry technology is challenging and complicated, I believe it is likely that A9 production will be overwhelmingly (and perhaps exclusively) concentrated at TSMC. A parallel can be drawn with various reports from last year, which for a long time continued to echo incorrect projections that Samsung would serve a significant portion of the production of Apple's A8 generation SoCs, which has not turned out not to be the case.

In the mean time, TSMC's revenues continue to be a relatively high level despite Q1usually being seasonally down, with strong demand for 20 nm production, most likely reflecting continuing demand from Apple, which is offsetting weakness from Qualcomm for leading-edge processes. There have been rumours about an upcoming iPhone 6S and a lower cost iPhone 6C model which may involve substantial unit volumes. Apple's iPhone unit shipments have also been boosted by strong demand in China.

Low yield at Samsung and Exynos ramp contribute to TSMC orders

According to a source quoting sources in South Korea, TSMC's yield rate for its 16 nm FinFET process is better than that of Samsung's 14 nm process. Moreover, Samsung is seeing strong upcoming demand for it flagship Galaxy S6 smartphone, which uses the Exynos 7420 SoC produced on its 14 nm FinFET process, and most likely needs all capacity it can get to ramp up production of this SoC. Samsung also increasingly uses Exynos 7420 and other internally-developed SoCs for other product lines, such as other smartphone models as well as tablets.

Qualcomm said to have limited-time exclusive use of TSMC's 16FF+ technology

According a report by EETimes from a semiconductor industry conference in January, Qualcomm is likely to have locked up exclusive use of TSMC's 16FF+ process technology for about six months. The article appears to quote sources affiliated with Qualcomm that state that Qualcomm feels competitors such as MediaTek took advantage of previous-generation process technology (28HPM) that Qualcomm helped develop at TSMC, without having made the development investment that Qualcomm made.

However, this policy would be contrary to the principles based on which TSMC has operated for a long time, although the initial ramp of 20 nm at TSMC last year also seemed to be locked-up by another company (Apple). Its seems corporate pressure from these giant companies, backed by billions of dollars of cash, is forcing TSMC into these kinds of commitments.

The article mentions that the later access to 16FF+ won't affect MediaTek's mainstream products serving the mid-range to entry-level segments, because 28 nm technologies will continue to be used for such products in the market.

Leaked power consumption graphs suggest increased power efficiency

Power consumption graphs of current and upcoming high-end Qualcomm SoCs running a 3D game at high detail settings suggest power consumption and heat production of Qualcomm's unannounced Snapdragon 815 processor will be considerably lower than that of the Snapdragon 801 and Snapdragon 810, with Snapdragon 810 showing particularly unfavourable characteristics, as confirmed by widespread reports and reviews of Snapdragon 810-based devices.

Snapdragon 815 is unannounced and few details are known about it, with some reports suggesting the use of a next-generation Krait CPU core. Use of ARM Cortex-A72 processor cores appears to be not unlikely, since this core seems to be close to actual production. Most likely, the decreased heat production, which is likely to be associated with lower power consumption, is made possible by the use of the next-generation 16 nm FinFET process at TSMC.

Similar improvements in power consumption were observed for Snapdragon 620, which uses Cortex-A72 cores, when compared to the mid-range Snapdragon 615 SoC, which is reported to also have heating issues. Snapdragon 620, which has been announced, is also likely to have significantly higher CPU performance than Snapdragon 615 due to the use of Cortex-A72 cores, versus Cortex-A53 for Snapdragon 615, while also likely being produced on a much more efficient process (possibly  TSMC's 16FF+), since Snapdragon 615 is manufactured on a low-efficiency 28LP process.

Sources: EE Times (ISS 2015 conference report), EE Times (Apple A9 orders article), STJS Gadgets Portal (Snapdragon heat production graphs)

Updated 25 March 2015 (Add comments about 20 nm Apple production at TSMC).

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