Samsung Switches to 20nm as TSMC Aims to Attain 10nm By 2015

Earlier this month, Samsung (KRX:005935) announced the Exynos 7 Octa, a 64-bit octa-core SoC with significant improvements in performance. The introduction of the Exynos 7 series also highlights Samsung’s shift to a 20nm process, a feat already achieved by TSMC (TPE:2330).

More efficient process

The move from 28nm to 20nm has discernible gains in efficiency, as showcased by Samsung during the announcement of the Exynos 7 Octa. The new SoC is claimed to be 25% more efficient when compared to the 28nm Exynos 5 Octa from last year.

Another significant advantage is in performance, with the latest SoC said to provide a 57% increase in performance. The increase in power is mainly due to the shift to the ARMv8 architecture, which sees the inclusion of 64-bit cores for the first time in an Exynos SoC.

The Exynos 7 Octa features four Cortex A57 cores that do the heavy lifting as well as four Cortex A53 cores that are utilized for more energy efficient tasks. The SoC supports HMP in the form of ARM’s big.LITTLE configuration, through which all eight cores can be active simultaneously.

Although Samsung strangely decided to not tout the benefits offered by the 64-bit CPU, the manufacturer did delve upon the Mali T760 GPU, which offers 74% increase in visual performance from T628MP6 GPU featured in the Exynos 5 Octa.

Other features in the new SoC include the addition of a new advanced multimedia format codec and a H.265 hardware decoder, along with dual image signal processors that allow users to record from both the front and rear cameras simultaneously. Also added is the ability to drive QHD (2560 x 1440 and 2560 x 1600) resolutions. 

Although the Exynos 7 Octa isn’t the first 20nm SoC manufactured by Samsung (that honor belongs to the Exynos 5 Octa), it is the first high-end mobile AP built by the silicon vendor. And with TSMC going full-tilt with a similar 20nm planar process, Samsung is going to need all the innovation it can muster.

TSMC threat

Samsung isn’t the only fab vendor shifting to 20nm, as rival TSMC has also commenced high-volume production on the 20nm process. TSMC is currently on a high after announcing its third quarter results, which saw the silicon vendor amass record revenues. The vendor has struck lucrative deals that may turn out to be significant in the long run.

One of the new deals is with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which for the first time decided to forgo Samsung’s fab facilities in lieu of TSMC’s offerings for the production of the A8. While the motives behind the switch weren’t detailed, it is likely that TSMC’s production capacity, which is said to be double that of what Samsung can offer, played a key factor in the move away from the South Korean vendor’s facilities.

Apple stated during the announcement of the iPhone 6 that the A8 SoC was twice as dense even after an overall size reduction to the tune of 13% due to the shift to 20nm.  If that wasn’t enough, TSMC announced earlier this month that it was working with ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) to deliver processors on a 10FinFET process node. The collaboration would result in the commercial availability of 10nm mobile SoCs by the fourth quarter of 2015, which would give ARM a sizable advantage over Intel (not that it needs one), as Intel’s (NASDAQ:INTC) 10nm node, dubbed Cannondale, will only be available sometime in 2016.

As for Samsung, it is likely that the chip vendor will continue to offer 20 nm SoCs for at least a year seeing as how the first batch of products featuring the hardware are just starting to be available to consumers. Samsung may have the largest market share in the Android segment, but when it comes to the mobile SoC segment, the manufacturer is far behind TSMC. With an increased focus on innovation and a closer collaboration with ARM, it looks like TSMC will be able to maintain that lead in the near future.