[News] TSMC’s N3 and N4P Processes to Power Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek Chips

According to a report by Taiwan’s Commercial Times, global smartphone brands are set to introduce a series of flagship-level new products. Following the introduction of Apple’s A17 chip using TSMC’s 3-nanometer process, Qualcomm’s next-generation processor Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 and MediaTek’s Dimensity 9300 are expected to be unveiled in October. These chips will be manufactured using TSMC’s N4P process, with plans to further transition to the N3E process next year.

Industry source have indicated that TSMC’s 3-nanometer yield is gradually improving, coupled with the return of N4P orders, providing a counterbalance against the impact of sluggish end market demand.

Commercial Times’ report highlights that TSMC previously expressed strong demand for its N3 process, projecting substantial growth in the second half of the year. The N3 process will support high-performance computing (HPC) and smartphone platforms, with an anticipated contribution of 4-6% to the company’s revenue in 2023. Additionally, N3E has already been verified and received its first batch of customer product design approvals, with mass production expected to commence in the fourth quarter. TSMC aims to achieve a monthly production capacity of 100,000 wafers in its 3-nanometer process by the end of the year to cater to Apple’s demands.

According to Bloomberg’s recent exposure of Apple’s projected M3 processor product roadmap set for release this fall, the basic M3 processor consists of 4 high-performance and 4 energy-efficient cores, paired with 10 GPU cores. M3 Pro comes in two versions: a basic version equipped with 12 cores (6 high-performance and 6 energy-efficient) and 18 GPU cores, and a higher-tier version with 14 CPU cores and 20 GPU cores.

M3 Max also offers two versions, featuring a fully-equipped 16-core CPU. The main difference between the basic and higher-tier versions lies in the GPU cores—32 for the former and a whopping 40 for the latter. The most powerful variant, M3 Ultra, essentially doubles the configuration of M3 Max, boasting 32 CPU cores paired with either 64 or 80 GPU cores. Industry experts widely regard TSMC as the primary beneficiary of these developments.

(Photo credit: TSMC)


Can MediaTek and NVIDIA Collaborate on Smartphone Chips?

Recently, there has been news of collaboration between NVIDIA and MediaTek. Speculation suggests that the future collaboration may extend to smartphone SoCs, allowing MediaTek to enhance the graphical computing and AI performance of Dimensity smartphone SoCs through NVIDIA’s GPU technology licensing.

Currently, the focus of this collaboration is primarily on NB SoC development, with some progress in the automotive-related chip sector. As for the scope of smartphone SoC collaboration, it is still under discussion, but the potential for related partnerships is worth noting.

In the announced collaboration between NVIDIA and MediaTek for the NB SoC products, MediaTek is mainly responsible for CPU, while other part such as GPU, DSP, ISP, and interface IP are provided by NVIDIA or external partners. NVIDIA holds the leadership position, while MediaTek plays a supporting role in this collaboration.

Regarding the industry’s speculation about possible collaboration in smartphone SoC development, it is estimated that MediaTek will take the lead in the design. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the motivations behind MediaTek’s adoption of related technologies.

Firstly, since the era of the Arm V9 instruction set, Arm’s reference GPU, Immortalis, has incorporated ray tracing functionality, assisting MediaTek’s flagship SoCs in improving gaming performance. This indicates that optimizing gaming scenarios is a key development focus for SoC manufacturers.

However, for high-end gaming applications, the current GPU performance of smartphone SoCs still cannot maintain high frame rates and native resolutions during gameplay. While selecting a pure core stacking approach to improve computational power is effective, it puts pressure on device power consumption. In light of this, Qualcomm introduced Snapdragon Game Super Resolution (GSR) technology this year, which simultaneously reduces power consumption and enhances game graphics quality. MediaTek has not yet explored this technology, and Arm Immortalis has not been released. Therefore, when it comes to GPU performance computing, MediaTek has incentives to seek external collaborations.

Furthermore, with the rapid upgrading of GPUs on smartphone SoCs, PC-level games are now being introduced to smartphones, and industry players are promoting compatibility with graphics APIs, opening doors for NVIDIA, AMD, and even Intel to enter the mobile gaming market. Samsung has partnered with AMD for its Exynos SoC GPU, while NVIDIA, with similar technology to Qualcomm Snapdragon GSR, becomes a logical choice as a cooperation partner for MediaTek.

TrendForce believes that if MediaTek integrates NVIDIA GPUs into Dimensity SoCs and leverages TSMC’s process power efficiency advantages, it could bring a new wave of excitement to MediaTek in the flagship or gaming device market, attracting consumer interest. However, despite the potential technical benefits of collaboration, considering the influence of geopolitical factors, MediaTek, which primarily sells its smartphone SoCs to Chinese customers, may ultimately abandon this collaboration option due to related policy risks.


Beyond the SoC Paradigm: Where Are Next-Gen Mobile AI Chips Going to Land?

The excitement surrounding ChatGPT has sparked a new era in generative AI. This fresh technological whirlwind is revolutionizing everything, from cloud-based AI servers all the way down to edge-computing in smartphones.

Given that generative AI has enormous potential to foster new applications and boost user productivity, smartphones have unsurprisingly become a crucial vehicle for AI tech. Even though the computational power of an end device isn’t on par with the cloud, it has the double benefit of reducing the overall cost of computation and protecting user privacy. This is primarily why smartphone OEMs started using AI chips to explore and implement new features a few years ago.

However, Oppo’s recent decision to shut down its chip design company, Zheku, casted some doubts on the future of smartphone OEMs’ self-developed chips, bringing the smartphone AI chip market into focus.

Pressing Needs to Speed Up AI Chips Iterations

The industry’s current approach to running generative AI models on end devices involves two-pronged approaches: software efforts focus on reducing the size of the models to lessen the burden and energy consumption of chips, while the hardware side is all about increasing computational power and optimizing energy use through process shrinkage and architectural upgrades.

IC design houses, like Qualcomm with its Snapdragon8 Gen.2, are now hurrying to develop SoC products that are capable of running these generative AI base models.
Here’s the tricky part though: models are constantly evolving at a pace far exceeding the SoC development cycle – with updates like GPT occurring every six months. This gap between hardware iterations and new AI model advancements might only get wider, making the rapid expansion of computational requirements the major pain point that hardware solution providers need to address.

Top-tier OEMs pioneering Add-on AI Accelerators

It’s clear that in this race for AI computational power, the past reliance on SoCs is being challenged. Top-tier smartphone OEMs are no longer merely depending on standard products from SoC suppliers. Instead, they’re aggressively adopting AI accelerator chips to fill the computational gap.

The approaches of integrating and add-on AI accelerator were first seen in 2017:

  • Integrated: This strategy is represented by Huawei’s Kirin970 and Apple’s A11 Bionic, which incorporated an AI engine within SoC.
  • Add-on: Initially implemented by Google Pixel 2, which used a custom Pixel Visual Core chip alongside Snapdragon 835. It wasn’t until the 2021 Pixel 6 series, which introduced Google’s self-developed Tensor SoC, that the acceleration unit was directly integrated into the Tensor.

Clearly, OEMs with self-developing SoC+ capabilities usually embed their models into AI accelerators at the design stage. This hardware-software synergy supplies the required computing power for specific AI scenarios.

New Strategic Models on the Rise

For OEMs without self-development capabilities, the hefty cost of SoC development keeps them reliant on chip manufacturers’ SoC iterations. Yet, they’re also applying new strategies within the supply chain to keep pace with swift changes.

Here’s the interesting part – brands are leveraging simpler specialized chips to boost AI-enabled applications, making standalone ICs like ISPs(Image Signal Processors) pivotal for new features of photography and display. Meanwhile, we’re also seeing potential advancements in the field of productivity tools – from voice assistants to photo editing – where the implementation of small-scale ASICs is seriously being considered to fulfill computational demands.

From Xiaomi’s collaboration with Altek and Vivo’s joint effort with Novatek to develop ISPs, the future looks bright for ASIC development, opening up opportunities for small-scale IC design and IP service providers.

Responding to the trend, SoC leader MediaTek is embracing an open 5G architecture strategy for market expansion through licensing and custom services. However, there’s speculation about OEMs possibly replacing MediaTek’s standard IP with self-developed ones for deeper product differentiation.

Looking at this, it’s clear that the battle of AI chips continues with no winning strategy for speeding up smartphone AI chip product iteration.

Considering the substantial resources required for chip development and the saturation of the smartphone market, maintaining chip-related strategies adds a layer of uncertainty for OEMs.With Oppo’s move to discontinue its chip R&D, other brands like Vivo and Xiaomi are likely reconsidering their game plans. The future, therefore, warrants close watch.

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Market Share of Smartphones Supporting Wi-Fi 6 and 6E Expected to Exceed 80% in 2025, Says TrendForce

Wi-Fi 6E was commercialized in 2021 and, in addition to supporting the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands, it can also operate in the 6 GHz band. According to TrendForce research, Wi-Fi 6E is designed to reduce network congestion and interference through more numerous, wider, and non-overlapping channels (transmission channels for signals in communication systems), while Wi-Fi 6 and 6E’s regular wake-up mechanism (Target Wake Time) effectively coordinates network traffic and maximizes the battery life of smartphones. By 2025, the market share of smartphones supporting Wi-Fi 6 and 6E is estimated to surpass 80%.

TrendForce further indicates that the market share of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E will reach 58% in 2022, officially surpassing Wi-Fi 5 technology. This adoption is primarily driven by the fact that countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have already used the 6GHz frequency band for Wi-Fi technology, as well as the support from the two major mobile phone camps, iOS and Android, and the active deployment of related industrial chains.

In addition, since high-quality Wi-Fi in devices such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets and wireless access bridges (Access Point) require more efficient and reliable connection requirements and video, telemedicine, and navigation systems require larger bandwidth, the demand for lower latency is driving growth in connected traffic, in addition to the greater amount of automotive, IoT, and AR/VR solutions expected to enter the consumer market this year.

At the same time, Wi-Fi technology is also expanding into the commercial, industrial, and household sectors with the largest growth coming in the demand for smart home and smart lighting. Shipments of Wi-Fi-based smart home equipment will grow at a CAGR of 18% from 2021-2026, connecting home devices through Wi-Fi into a core home network and driving applications such as AR/VR, cloud gaming, 4K video conferencing and 8K streaming media. The continuous development of smart home networking technology has further bolstered the promotion of smart lighting connectivity. The appeal of smart lighting is convenience, safety, and energy efficiency. Currently, voice assistants such as Alexa, Cortana, and Siri can synchronize with smart lighting applications and enable voice commands to control functions such as the light switch, brightness, and color tone. Thus, smart lighting can also be used outside the home in factories, offices, and even outdoors.


Top 10 Taiwanese IC Design Company Revenue Top NT$900B in 2021 with MediaTek Contributing Lion’s Share

According to TrendForce research, in general, revenue of Taiwanese IC design companies grew significantly in 2021 with many hitting record highs due to active procurement of various terminal applications and the effect of product price inflation. These companies also performed well in terms of gross profit margin and profitability. The top 10 Taiwanese IC design companies generated revenue of NT$906.16 billion, or 54.3% YoY. In recent years, MediaTek has contributed more than half of the output value of Taiwan’s top ten IC design companies and has become a primary factor in the growth of Taiwan’s IC design industry.

Looking at Taiwan’s top three IC design companies, MediaTek, Novatek, and Realtek, in 1Q22, MediaTek benefited from the increase in 5G penetration and successive shipments of Dimensity 9000. A mobile phone release in March 2022 produced revenue growth which can offset lower demand for certain consumer products due to seasonal factors while the proportion of high-margin products in each revenue category will increase. Thus, annual revenue growth is expected to exceed 20% this year.

As for Novatek, although DDI and TDDI stocking has entered the off-season for traditional industries and demand for consumer electronics has weakened, overall market demand is still greater than supply and Commercial Notebook and Automotive demand remain strong. New products such as OLED FoD, OLED TDDI, FTDDI, and Mini LED will drive continued revenue stability. This year, Novatek will integrate TCON, PMIC, etc. for package sales, so that there is a relative price support, but the company must still dynamically adjust its product mix according to market changes.

In terms of Realtek, positive demand in the enterprise, industrial, and automotive sectors in 2H21 will continue to 1H22. With the pandemic slowing down, purchasing of commercial laptops and equipment has ramped up, wired and wireless network infrastructure is being upgraded, the automotive market continues to grow, and relevant products such as Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, 5G Ethernet, and the new LE Audio Bluetooth IC are being launched successively, which will continue to improve Realtek’s performance. On the consumer market side, demand in the PC and consumer electronics markets will return to normal in 2022 and the TWS Bluetooth headset market will face a price war, which will lead to a suppression of Realtek’s shipments in relevant sectors. Regarding foundry price hikes, some customers have reported that they cannot afford further price inflation and are still in the process of negotiating terms of cooperation. In addition, Realtek has been destocking in 1Q22 due to the customer yearend inventory audits and component mismatching.

Taking a comprehensive look at 2022, TrendForce believes that the benefits of price inflation will gradually fade and demand for consumer electronics will moderate but not weaken significantly, while sustained strong demand for industrial, automotive, and high-speed computing will test the product portfolio optimization and cost pass-through ability of IC design companies.

(Image credit: iStock)

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