Reports this week say smartphone giant Huawei is expected on April 15 to launch a next-generation high-end smartphone known as the Ascend Mate P8. The phone is said to be powered by a chip known as the Kirin 930, designed by Huawei's chip division, HiSilicon. There is a rumor this chip will be built on Taiwan Semiconductor's (NYSE:TSM) 16-nanometer FinFET manufacturing technology.
This has led some to believe the Ascend Mate P8 will have a performance and power edge against the many high-end Android phones that will be powered by Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) 20-nanometer Snapdragon 810. The 16-nanometer process implements a transistor technology known as FinFETs that improves power and performance over the 20-nanometer technology.
However, I don't believe that rumor. Here's why.
The timeline doesn't work
Taiwan Semiconductor has stated numerous times that it doesn't plan to begin production on its 16-nanometer technology until the third quarter of 2015. This means production on commercial 16-nanometer wafers would begin on July 1 at the earliest and Sept. 30 at the latest. Furthermore, the company has said it expects an approximately 1.5-quarter lag between production start and revenue recognition, since those wafers take time to process.
If Huawei plans on April launch of a new smartphone powered by a new processor (and if mass availability occurs within a month or so of the unveiling), then this would mean that chip would be well into production at this point. That doesn't match Taiwan Semiconductor's 16-nanometer FinFET schedule at all.
What's likely, then?
To be competitive, I believe Huawei will either use a 20-nanometer chip from Qualcomm (the Snapdragon 810) or it an in-house chip built on Taiwan Semiconductor's 20-nanometer manufacturing technology. While I'm not convinced HiSilicon's mobile chip efforts are quite on par with Qualcomm's, I do think the company wants to keep advancing its own mobile chip efforts at the high end.
The current-generation Kirin 920 chip features a quad-core ARM (NASDAQ:ARMH) Cortex A15/quad-core Cortex A7 in big.LITTLE and ARM Mali-T628 graphics. I expect the Krin 930 to be a straightforward upgrade of the Kirin 920 to include the 64-bit ARM Cortex A57/A53 CPU cores in a big.LITTLE configuration and ARM Mali-T760 graphics. These specifications, built on a 20-nanometer process, should be competitive for a premium Android smartphone.
What could be the source of this rumor?
Rumors generally don't come out of thin air, and I think this one developed from the fact that HiSilicon and Taiwan Semiconductor produced working samples of a HiSilicon-designed networking chip built on the 16-nanometer FinFET process. This might have led some to believe a chip based on the same manufacturing technology was slated for Huawei's next flagship smartphone.
However, while Taiwan Semiconductor and HiSilicon claim to have "delivered" this 16-nanometer FinFET networking chip, I think these are merely samples rather than production silicon being produced in high volumes. We'll see in April what HiSilicon has to say about its next-generation Kirin 930 chip for phones, but I doubt it will be built on Taiwan Semiconductor's 16-nanometer FinFET process.