Among the first two smartphone chipsets to be manufactured by foundry TSMC using the 5nm process node are Apple’s A14 Bionic and Huawei’s HiSilicon Kirin 1020. We can show you what this all means by giving you some numbers. Each 7nm A13 Bionic, currently powering the iPhone 11 family and the iPhone SE (2020), contains 8.5 billion transistors; the A14 Bionic chip has 15 billion transistors shoehorned inside. The more transistors inside a semiconductor, the more powerful and energy-efficient it is.

Huawei’s 5nm Kirin 1020 SoC said to be more expensive to produce than Apple’s 5nm A14 Bionic

According to WCCFtech, a tipster posting on Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo under the handle “Mobile chip master” says that even though both the A14 Bionic and the Kirin 1020 SoC are manufactured using the same process node, the latter chip is more expensive to make than the IC that will power Apple’s first 5G handsets. In addition, Huawei’s first 5nm chip is supposedly larger in size than Apple’s first 5nm chipset, but not as large as the custom ARM chip being used on the upcoming MacBook line. The latter will also be more expensive to develop than the other two chips we’ve discussed.

While enthusiasts love to use benchmark tests like Geekbench to determine which silicon runs the fastest, to date no HiSilicon chip has ever outperformed Apple’s home-grown chipsets; however, there is speculation that the Kirin 1020 will provide a boost in performance by 50% over the Kirin 990. Will that be fast enough to top Apple? Other 5nm chips coming in 2021 include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 875 and the Exynos 1000.

Huawei plans on using the Kirin 1020 to power its second-half flagship phone series, the Mate 40. The Mate line is usually the manufacturer’s most technologically advanced phones for the year. The chips are also expected to be used on base stations made for 5G networks. Not only is Huawei currently the largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, but it also is the planet’s leading supplier of networking equipment. But access to the Kirin 1020 chips it designed isn’t a sure thing starting on September 15th; that’s when a new U.S. export rule kicks in. All foundries producing chips for using American technology need to obtain a license from the U.S. to ship chips to Huawei. TSMC says that it will follow the rule change.

Last year, when Huawei was banned from its U.S. supply chain, it was able to get around the ban by purchasing supplies from U.S. companies’ foreign facilities. A similar way around the new chip rules is possible. The supply chain for semiconductors has several steps and could allow companies to ship chips while claiming that they didn’t know that Huawei was the ultimate buyer. Harvard Business School technology expert Willy Shih explains that “You have to stop selling to Huawei directly. But how are you going to know where it goes if you sell to a distributor?”
Another possibility is for Huawei to arrange to have chips sent to its suppliers who would then add it into a system that Huawei includes with its phones. Yes, Huawei would be the beneficiary from the production of the chip but the component is not actually being shipped directly to the Chinese manufacturer. What makes Huawei so desperate to obtain chips is the fact that only two foundries will be able to produce 5nm chips this year, TSMC and Samsung. China’s largest foundry, SMIC, remains a few process nodes behind at 14nm. However, with advanced lithography equipment on the way, SMIC’s roadmap takes its production down to the 10nm and 7nm process nodes eventually.

Despite producing phones with the equivalent of one hand tied behind its back, Huawei shipped 55.8 million units during the second quarter topping both Samsung and Apple.

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