Qualcomm has confirmed that it will use Samsung’s 14nm LPP (Low Power Plus) process for its
Snapdragon 820 SoC. This will be the first time the mobile giant has used Samsung for a cutting-edge node.
Historically, TSMC has led the pure-play foundry business in deploying new manufacturing technologies,
and therefore won the overwhelming majority of business for each die shrink.
Unlike Apple, which dual-sourced its SoCs from both Samsung and TSMC, Qualcomm is apparently sticking
with just the Korean manufacturer, at least for the high-end 820. This will undoubtedly save on costs,
but it does raise questions of whether or not Samsung’s 14nm LPP is up to the task or not.
The iPhone 6s uses processors from both companies, and while real-world testing revealed that they
earn equivalent battery life, specific stress tights highlighted that the Samsung chip, while smaller,
is also hotter and a bigger drain on the battery.
Will Qualcomm win back Samsung?
One major question is whether a manufacturing deal means Qualcomm will win the upcoming
Samsung Galaxy S7. The answer here, I think, is no — if Samsung goes for the Snapdragon 820 in the S7,
it will be for performance and power efficiency reasons, not any kind of manufacturing arrangement.
Samsung, after all, continued to fab SoCs and displays for Apple, even as the Cupertino company took it
to court over patent infringements.
Fabs are incredibly expensive, with substantial fixed costs and long lead times. Idling a fab is a good
way to kill your bottom line, and if Samsung is serious about continuing to compete with TSMC at
cutting-edge nodes, it needs to keep its existing fabs running hot. The company has also historically been
rather agnostic when it comes to which companies it uses for its devices — if Samsung believes it can get
a more attractive product with the Snapdragon 820, it’ll likely use that core. If the metrics, costs,
and time-to-market favor next-generation Exynos instead, it’ll use an Exynos design.
The real loser, in this case, is TSMC. It’s now sharing Apple business with Samsung,
and it failed to capture Qualcomm’s business at 16nm. The company will easily survive such arrangements,
but we expect the Taiwanese foundry to push hard for 10nm — it’ll try to cut Samsung off at the knees by
being first to that node, stopping its competitor from soaking up the most profitable early business.
Devices with the Snapdragon 820 are expected to debut in the first half of this year.