Blog: Who Really is First to 7nm?

Article By : Sufia Tippu

The PR mills are turning, and they're churning out the same message: "we're first with a 7nm CPU!" But who really made it first?

BENGALURU — Recently I met a journalist colleague who was talking about a press conference held in Delhi on September 21 where the Chinese tech company Huawei announced its 7nm mobile chipset Kirin 980 will reach Indian consumers in fourth quarter of this year. It is supposed to debut in Huawei’s mobile devices, the Mate 20 series to be launched in London on October 16.

Now, Kirin 980 armed with AI capabilities is said to be the latest chipset -the world’s first commercial System on a Chip (SoC) manufactured with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturer Company’s (TSMC) 7nm process.

Incidentally, Huawei had unveiled the Kirin 980, designed by Huawei’s semiconductor unit, HiSilicon at the IFA consumer electronics trade show in Berlin on the last day of August this year and that was touted to be the world’s “first” confirmed 7nm mobile chipset, one notch up from the current 10-nm standard.

The dual Neural Processing Units (NPU) in Kirin 980 will allow Huawei phones to perform AI functions without an Internet connection. Huawei’s last processor had just a single NPU, which enabled Huawei’s handsets to recognize scenes and objects through the camera lens and is capable of differentiating cats from dogs, sunrises from sunsets, and can even drive a Porsche which was demo-ed at the World Mobility Congress.

Kirin 980 can recognise up to 4,500 images per minute, which is a 120 per cent increase from its predecessor greater than the industry average. It also supports multi-person motion prediction, which accurately reads the motion of human subjects at up 30fps (frames per second) and can rig their 3D model real time, it said.

Compared to the previous generation 10nm process, the 7nm process packs 6.9 billion transistors in the same form factor as its predecessor, while delivering 20 per cent improved performance and 40 per cent more efficiency.

I really couldn’t figure out why was it being “launched” here in India, though it was officially launched at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin and why it is being touted as the first while Apple and Qualcomm too claim to be the “first.”

So, I started digging into the search engines’ news repository to see if there a clear answer.

And, realised that Apple executives during the launch of new iPhone Xs and Xs Max on September 12, also said that their next generation of iPhones will contain the “first” 7nm chip in a smartphone — the A12 Bionic chip with next-generation Neural Engine, which would new experiences for AR, games, photography, video editing, graphics-intensive apps and more.

According to Apple website, the next-generation neural engine is built for advanced machine learning in everything from photography to augmented reality. A new eight-core design allows it to complete up to 5 trillion operations per second compared to 600 billion in A11 Bionic. This enables new capabilities like faster plane detection for ARKit (Apple’s augmented reality (AR) development platform for iOS mobile devices) and new features that use real-time machine learning. For the first time the neural engine is open to Core ML, empowering developers to build apps that utilize this highly efficient machine learning engine. Core ML running on the A12 Bionic Neural Engine is up to nine times faster than on A11 Bionic, with as little as one-tenth the energy usage.

Then there was this earlier news report at the beginning of the year that stated Qualcomm’s “first” 5G chips would be manufactured by Samsung Semiconductor, using the South Korean tech giant’s 7nm fabrication process. And more reports about how Qualcomm had started sampling 7nm mobile processor with 5G support.

Does the consumer know which processor empowers his phone?

No doubt the big players in the smartphone processor market are definitely Apple, Huawei, Samsung and Qualcomm. (the latter three for Android OS and the first for iOS). Qualcomm is a supplier to most smartphone manufacturers, while Samsung and Huawei manufacture their own chipsets and Apple of course has its own unique brand of its design which TSMC is privy to.

Does it really matter to the 99% of population which doesn’t really know or care what processor is embedded inside as long as the phone doesn’t hang or blow up or black out and has a long battery-life?

But the real question is when the consumer is not even aware of these processor companies, how does it really matter who comes out with the first 7nm chipset? And why is every manufacturer saying it is the “first”?

Huawei phones are not very popular in India, yet it is going great guns with it launch of 7nm SoC in India and elsewhere, unlike Apple whose handsets are widely sold in India despite the high price.

The mobile processor market is similar to the personal computers (PCs) world. Except for Intel processor which embellished its processor brand through its ear-catching five-note jingle “Intel Inside” marketing campaign, most of the consumers don’t really care about the processors as long as their devices work fine and work fast.

There is a complete blank look when you ask someone what’s the processor that is empowering his/her handset.

Sure, people have heard about Snapdragon but do they know that it belongs to Qualcomm? And how many have heard of Samsung’s Exynos? For that matter, quite a few are aware of the Apple’s iOS and how it is proprietary to Apple Inc. thanks to Apple’s aggressive marketing strategy and apps connected to it but most don’t even know that there is a chip called A11 Bionic chip nestling in the iPhone and A12 Bionic is the latest one.

And, after delving deep into Google and Bing, I realised there was no clear-cut answer nor was there any ranking about the “first” company to launch 7nm chipsets. It seemed like a case who is the first among equals.

Coming to think of it, I couldn’t even find out which company was the first to launch 10nm chipsets either. Does anyone really know and why is it is so important to be the first?

So, this brouhaha about being the first to come out with 7nm chipsets seems to be just that, grabbing headlines and confusing the regular consumer.

Major chipmakers delay plans to offer 7nm chipsets

And more interesting was the fact that Digitimes reports that four major chipmakers have delayed or held plans to offer their own 7nm process to Android brands.

With sub-10nm node manufacturing requiring huge capital investment, a number of foundries have slowed down their investment pace while fabless chipmakers stick with 14/12nm products for cost reasons.

Both Qualcomm and MediaTek are believed to have postponed the launch of their 7nm chip solutions to 2019 from the previously-planned 2018.

UMC has shifted its investment focus to mature and specialty process nodes, while Globalfoundries has decided to put its 7nm FinFET program on hold indefinitely.

So, if at all if one has to use the term “first”, it should be applied to TSMC to have manufactured it beating Samsung to it.

— Sufia Tippu is a freelance tech journalist based in India contributing to EE Times India

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