But what is happening with the chips? Who is who in the semiconductor industry

No long ago the semiconductors were considered "the most boring industry in the world". Rounge by which by then unwavering law of Moore, the few companies i

But what is happening with the chips?
 Who is who in the semiconductor industry

No long ago the semiconductors were considered "the most boring industry in the world". Rounge by which by then unwavering law of Moore, the few companies in charge of manufacturing the complex processors of the PC were able to predict with years in advance the power and specifications of their future products.

Today, the story very different, and not only because the pandemic has created a situation of shortage that affects all kinds of electronic products (which today are almost all products, from cars to appliances). Several strategic decisions and the boom of mobile telephony has multiplied the number of companies competing in this sector and the expectations of power and performance.

The boom of smartphones and the decision, in the first decade of the century, to bet on Architecture ARM, has allowed several companies to jump to the market with their own designs that are manufactured in the same factories in which competition operates.

Most chips we use in all kinds of products is manufactured in highly specialized plants, known as "foundries", spread around the world.

TSMC, Samsung, SMIC and Global Foundries control more than half of these plants and manufacture in it the designs of companies such as Apple, Qualcomm, AMD or NVIDIA.

In all, similar processes are used to transform silicon into the chips that give life to all devices, although with different levels of miniaturization and sophistication.

These processes are usually designated in nanometers because they represent the level of miniaturization of transistors within a chip. The smaller the number, the more transistors fit in a certain area and therefore more powerful can be a chip of defined dimensions, but also more complicated the manufacturing process becomes.

The measure, nowadays, has become very abstract because not all foundries measure in the same way nor transistors are the only important component within modern chipsets (which not only include the proper process unit but a whole series Of customized modules and components), but basically it is an indicative of the manufacturing generation in which a certain factory is located.

TSMC, for example, has one of the most advanced manufacturing processes and is started to manufacture chips with a miniaturization level of 4 nanometers. It also has ready and processes to manufacture in 3 and two nanometers in the coming years.

Although these companies manufacture the chips in the strict sense of the word, the manufacturer is usually considered, actually, to the company that designs them.

With the boom of mobile telephony, Qualcomm has become one of the main ones because its SnapDragon processors are on most Android phones. Qualcomm is also, for now, the company that provides Apple from the 5G modem of the iPhone.

Its position, in any case, is more precarious than a few years ago because Apple is starting to design its own modem and because several mobile manufacturers have also decided to make their own chip designs. It is the case of Samsung, for example, with the Exynos, or Google processors, which has recently launched a pixel with its own processor, the tensioner.

To try to strengthen your situation, Qualcomm has just presented a new marketing strategy and also the processors that next year will be at the top of its catalog, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1.

The company has also acquired a start-up, Nuvia, founded by ancient Apple engineers and with which it expects to compete in the processing market for PC, now that Arm Architecture threatens to steal what until recently was the exclusive market of Intel.

The problem of Qualcomm is not only Samsung or Google decide to manufacture their own chips. Its competition for years has been MediaTek, a Chinese manufacturer of processors that has focused mainly on the lower range of the market.

His latest designs, however, already rivaled with the most powerful proposals of Qualcomm. The MediaTek Dimensity 9000, presented in November, is just focused on high-end Androids, with an architecture similar to that of Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and, in the first tests, a very similar performance.

Isolated of the rest of mobile phone manufacturers, Apple has maneuvered intelligently in the last decade, creating a team of engineers who year after year are the processors' power and efficiency ribbon.

Apple began to manufacture its own processors in 2013 (until that moment the iPhone AX designed them and always manufactured Samsung). In 8 years they have become the processor with which the rest of the industry is compared.

Not only for smartphones chips. In 2019, the company announced that its futures Mac would leave Intel processors to also use its own processors, manufactured with the same architecture used on the iPhone and iPad, but more powerful thanks to a larger size and better heat dissipation systems.

The result has been the M1, M1 Pro and M1 Max, processors with which it has achieved a performance similar to Intel's most powerful offers but consuming much less resources. The advantage of Apple, as has happened on previous occasions, comes from the high integration of its products. The company designs and manufactures everything in them, from the housing to the operating system, and that allows you to achieve efficiency levels that for the rest of manufacturers is very complex or expensive.

Intel and AMD are the main processor manufacturers for PC and laptops. For decades, this industry has used processors based on X86 architecture, driven by Intel and different from Arm Architecture that mobiles use.

Without entering many technicalities, the main difference is that the X86 architecture is based on specialized process centers capable of performing complex instructions (CISC) and ARM in process centers that use simpler operations (RISC) but that are capable of executing in Large quantities and in less time.

Apple's decision to scale iPhone processors to MAC computers has revived the idea of using RISC processors in conventional computing, a proposal that seemed abandoned since the 1990s.

For Intel, which has had the de facto control of the PC processor industry in recent decades, this current brings new competitors. Not only Apple, who has decided to dispense with Intel's processors on his Macs. It is likely that in the future it is more complicated to convince companies such as Lenovo or Dell that they use their processors against the future proposals of Qualcomm or MediaTek, for example.

It does not help that in the last years Intel has had problems evolving the design of its processors. While Foundries such as TSMC or Samsung have been able to reduce manufacturing processes each year or a year and a half, Intel has jammed years in their designs, unable to achieve important progress in each generation.

The situation has improved recrently and the company announced in November a new generation of processors, Alder Lake, which use a level of integration of 10 nanometers.

Again, this type of measurement has become very abstract and a direct comparison can not be made with the TSMC integration processes, but in general, Intel has cost you to give this leap more than expected. When it was the only one or almost the only company in the PC processor market, it did not matter so much, but now you will have to strive more to remain competitive.

In a way, it faces a double problem. The alternative to Intel, for years, has been AMD, which also manufactures processors with X86 architecture for desktop and portable PCs. The company has always taken a lower market share, with processors that could fit with some kind of specific user better than those of the rivals by power or price, but without representing a clear threat to Intel.

In recent years, however, its Ryzen processors have been gaining market share in an unstoppable manner, partly because they have conquered little by little to the only type of user who still spends money on a PC: the gamer. Although it is still a farm market, but the Ryzen 5000 series of processors, launched last year, has become a highly demanded alternative by electronic leisure enthusiasts.

Updated Date: 08 January 2022, 05:38

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