The Powerhouse Behind Your Smartphone Chips
The TSMC-Samsung Foundry rivalry may not be the most well-known, but it has a significant impact on the chips inside our beloved smartphones. TSMC, the largest foundry in the world, relies heavily on Apple, its top customer, which accounts for a quarter of its revenue. Additionally, both Samsung and TSMC have produced Snapdragon chips for Qualcomm at different times.
Samsung Foundry’s Struggle with Low Yields
Samsung Foundry faced a setback when it experienced low yields while manufacturing last year’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip for Qualcomm. As a result, Qualcomm shifted its production to TSMC for the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 and the more recent Snapdragon 8 Gen 2. Yield refers to the percentage of chips produced on a single silicon wafer that pass quality control. Samsung Foundry had a dismal yield of only 35% for the 4nm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip, while TSMC boasted a much higher yield of 70%.
This week, TSMC commenced mass production of its 3nm chips using the N3 process node, a few months after Samsung Foundry began producing chips using its 3GAE node. As the process node numbers shrink, it signifies the beginning of the next generation of cutting-edge chip production. Smaller process numbers result in higher transistor counts, making these components more powerful and energy-efficient.
TSMC’s Impressive Yields on Early 3nm Production
Analysts estimate that TSMC’s N3 yields range from 60% to 70%, possibly even reaching as high as 75% to 80%. These early yields for the first batch of chips are highly respectable. Comparatively, Samsung Foundry struggles with its yield, with industry sources reporting early-stage yields ranging from 10% to 20% on its 3GAE production. This means that Samsung would require more time and resources to accumulate the same number of chipsets as TSMC. However, as time goes on, Samsung’s yields are expected to improve.
Key Differences Between Samsung’s and TSMC’s 3nm Nodes
It is important to note that since TSMC primarily produces cutting-edge chips for Apple, it is more likely to achieve higher yields than Samsung in this early stage of the 3nm era. Apple might be the sole TSMC customer ordering N3 production, with other customers waiting for the subsequent stage, N3E. Therefore, comparing yields between the two rivals may not be entirely fair, although there does appear to be a significant gap between them.
Samsung’s 3nm chips differ structurally from TSMC’s. Samsung uses gate-all-around (GAA) transistors, which provide better control over current flow. GAA transistors feature vertically stacked nanosheets that cover all four sides of the channel, resulting in improved control and reduced leakage. In contrast, TSMC’s 3nm node still employs FinFET transistors that cover only three sides of the channel. However, TSMC plans to switch to GAA for its 2nm production.
The Next Generation: 2nm and Beyond
Looking ahead, both TSMC and Samsung are gearing up for the production of 2nm chips in 2025. Samsung’s roadmap even includes a 1.4nm node in 2027, while TSMC has hinted at 1nm without providing specific details. The future of chip manufacturing is undoubtedly exciting, and these advancements promise even more impressive performance and energy efficiency for our devices.
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