Nano AI revolution: Smartphones push chip design envelope to 7nm

19 Oct 2018477 Views

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As tech gets tiny, we are definitely in the nano era of smartphone electronics.

If you look closely at what’s happening with the latest slew of smartphone reveals from Apple and Huawei, chips using ultra-tiny seven-nanometre (7nm) processors are becoming the new normal. And Samsung is ready for a piece of the action, too.

Apple was first out of the traps in September with its iPhone XS, XS Max and XR line-up, which houses the A12 Bionic, the first 7nm smartphone chip, containing 6.9bn transistors. Boasting a neural engine, the A12 comes with a GPU that is 50pc faster than last year’s A11 chip, and it can process 5trn operations a second.

‘This fundamental shift in how wafers are manufactured gives our customers the opportunity to significantly improve their products’ time to market with superior throughput, reduced layers and better yield’
– CHARLIE BAE

Earlier this week, Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei revealed its new flagship smartphones, the Mate 20 and the Mate 20 Pro. They feature a powerful new Kirin 980 processor – claimed to be Huawei’s first 7nm device – and house dual neural processing units, using AI to split the processing tasks of the device between them.

Not to be outdone, South Korean tech rival Samsung has just started mass production of 7nm chips using its 7nm low-power plus (7LPP) node, with extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology.

Move over 7nm, say hello to 3nm

But, wait for it – Samsung has plans to go even tinier. “The introduction of 7LPP is a clear demonstration of Samsung Foundry’s technology roadmap evolution and provides customers with a definite path to 3nm,” Samsung said in a statement.

“The commercialisation of its newest process node, 7LPP, gives customers the ability to build a full range of exciting new products that will push the boundaries of applications such as 5G, artificial intelligence, enterprise and hyperscale data centre, IoT, automotive, and networking.”

Samsung said that semiconductors made with 7LPP fabrication technology gain a 40pc area reduction along with a 50pc lower power consumption. This adds up to a 20pc overall higher performance from 7nm chips compared with 10nm chips.

EUV lithography also means that Samsung will be able to place more transistors inside next-gen system on chips (SOCs) for future flagship smartphones such as the Galaxy 10, which will launch next year.

Samsung is chomping at the bit right right now to show how innovative its next devices will be, just as Apple gets ready to roll out its XR baby, as Google has revealed its latest Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 flagships, and as Huawei has unveiled its 7nm-powered Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro.

The initial EUV production has started in Samsung’s S3 Fab in Hwaseong, South Korea. With uncharacteristic candour, Samsung has revealed that it can process 1,500 wafers a day.

“With the introduction of its EUV process node, Samsung has led a quiet revolution in the semiconductor industry,” said Charlie Bae, executive vice-president of the foundry sales and marketing team at Samsung Electronics.

“This fundamental shift in how wafers are manufactured gives our customers the opportunity to significantly improve their products’ time to market with superior throughput, reduced layers and better yields. We’re confident that 7LPP will be an optimal choice not only for mobile and high-performance computing, but also for a wide range of cutting-edge applications.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com