Samsung’s 7nm roadmap will bolster Galaxy S9, may help it overtake Intel

Samsung could achieve what was once unthinkable, and become the biggest chipmaker in the world by revenue, at least for as long as the current boom in memory prices lasts. According to IC Insights, Samsung’s chip sales are poised to overtake Intel’s in the second quarter of this year, toppling the US firm from the top spot for the first time since it overtook NEC in 1990.

The Korean giant is being helped by the rise of mobile devices at the expense of the PCs which Intel dominates. Smartphones drive sales of DRAM and NAND flash memory chips, in which Samsung is the world leader. But Samsung has also been more successful than Intel in other semiconductors for mobile products, such as processors and SoCs, helped by having a semi-captive customer in the form of its own handset division.

However, that division has never been wholly tied into its sister firm’s chips. The high end Galaxy models are usually split between those with Samsung’s Exynos processor/modem and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. That dichotomy is likely to persist, even with the launch of the Galaxy S9 in 2018. Some S9s are expected to sport Exynos SoCs made with Samsung’s upcoming 7nm process – but Qualcomm and its main manufacturing partner TSMC are moving to power-efficient 7nm in a similar timeframe.

Reports of Samsung’s aggressive deadline of early 2018 for fully commercial 7nm – apparently timed to coincide with the S9 launch – surfaced only weeks after it unveiled the Galaxy S8, to very encouraging industry reception in the wake of the Note 7 debacle.

Additional rumors claimed that some S9 models will use a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, but built in Samsung’s fabs rather than TSMC’s, like the 10nm Snapdragon 835. Nothing is clear yet – other reports claim the 845 will still be 10nm, while The Investor reports that Samsung and TSMC are both in the running to manufacture the 845.

The new S8 uses an Exynos 8895 in some regions, with the Snapdragon 835 taking the bulk of the shipments. Both are made with the 10nm process, the smallest geometry currently in commercial production, and the S8 is currently the only phone to use the 835. By the time the S9 makes its debut, the 835 should have cropped up in a few rival designs and Samsung will be looking to make another leap forward.

The ZDNet report quotes Heo Kuk, Samsung LSI’s Managing Director, who noted that the success of 7nm was due to maximizing the advantages of extreme ultraviolet exposure equipment (EUV), in the fabrication process. As with most die shrinks, the move to 7nm should provide improved compute performance and power consumption – key metrics for mobile devices.

Of course, the main companies in Samsung’s sights for Galaxy S9 will be Apple and Huawei, its largest smartphone rivals. Apple will launch its tenth anniversary iPhone this fall, though that will be too early for a 7nm SoC to be widely available and commercially trustworthy. Apple inhouse-designed iPhone processors are made by either TSMC or Samsung, though the former has been reported to have an exclusive deal for 7nm chips, provided it reaches scale with the process within its planned timescale of early 2018.

However, assuming Apple sticks to its usual upgrade cycle – releasing one or two new models each September – it will not be able to take advantage of the enhancements enabled by 7nm for months after Samsung. That will not be a difference which resonates directly with consumers, but it will make it easier for Samsung’s S9 to leapfrog the iPhone significantly, and affordably – and to retain that advantage for a couple of quarters.

The current iPhone 7’s A10 processor is 16nm, while the upcoming new phone will presumably have a 10nm chip.

Huawei’s plans for a new semiconductor process are shrouded in even more mystery than those of its rivals. Like Samsung, it has considerable control over its roadmap and supply, since the Kirin processors in its flagship smartphones are made by its own HiSilicon division. However, HiSilicon is fabless, so Huawei has to rely on TSMC achieving its 7nm goals (the Chinese contract manufacturers are not expected to get to the new geometry as quickly).