> Four major companies design the key chips for smartphones
Qualcomm, Mediatek, HiSilicon, Samsung and Apple... I count five mentioned in the article. What am I missing?
Four major companies design the key chips for smartphones, and Huawei's HiSilicon became the first to announce its 7nm designs today at the giant IFA show in Berlin. The HiSilicon Kirin 980 series is the first to disclose details of chips based on the new production techniques – although you can expect Apple to follow in a few …
Four major companies design the key chips for smartphones....Qualcomm, Mediatek, HiSilicon, Samsung and Apple...
Could any well informed commentards help me and other ignoramii out by explaining who exactly does what?
On the fab side of things, I've got (I think) a good idea of what's involved, who's playing and who's paying. But on the design side, exactly who's actually designing what? Almost everything seems to be ARM based, but then Uncle Tom Cobley and all claim that they design their own silicon. Is ARM simply an instruction set? Or a code library? Or is the ARM element a core CPU component to which other companies bolt on third party IP to make an SOC? How complicated is this third party design - are we talking Shenzen generic levels of difficulty, or do the "designers" actually need to be chip design gurus?
The starting point is RTL supplied directly from Arm or created in-house.
A set of libs are chosen for a specific foundary tech (cells + memories etc) and the RTL is used to synthesize a netlist which is then floorplanned and place 'n' routed. (Various steps required to achieve this.)
You need to know what you are doing to achieve perf, power and area targets.
>Could any well informed commentards help me and other ignoramii out by explaining who exactly does what?
The innards of a phone broadly break down into application CPU (ACPU), modem (sometimes called CCPU) and memory. There are ancillary bits like power supply and radio filters, but nobody ever mentions their manufacturers.
A modern ACPU contains several ARM cores, usually of different capabilities to allow power optimisation. The modem will usually have one or two small ARM cores for control, but the heavy lifting is done by DSPs and dedicated logic circuitry.
In the majority of current handsets, ACPU and modem are combined in a single System on Chip (SoC) package. Apple are the main exception to this.
Hi Silicon, Samsung LSI and Mediatek make ACPUs, modems and SoCs.
Qualcomm and Spreadtrum make modems and SoCs
Intel make modems (their mobile APCUs were discontinued)
Apple only make ACPUs
There are others, but they are either specialist (e.g. in IoT devices), regional (i.e. you won't find them outside of China), or no longer making chipsets (Icera, Broadcom, Marvel, Renesas, STE.... )
ARM supply the designs for the CPU core, which is part of the chip. They also supply designs for a bunch of ancillary things that you probably want on your chip - memory controllers, graphics core, etc etc. The chip designer takes whichever of those blocks they want, often takes some other blocks developed in-house (e.g. a GSM radio or Apple's security core), perhaps some blocks from 3rd parties (e.g. there are/were 3rd party graphics core suppliers), puts them together in a single chip design and connects them all together. They may also tweak some of the blocks, with small or large modifications (perhaps including some extra instructions in the CPU, or a different size cache, or a different maximum memory size on the memory controller). They then send the design to a fab to be manufactured.
The designers do need to be chip design experts, but obviously there's a lot less effort involved in taking premade parts and joining them together than writing the whole thing from scratch. It's a bit like programmers using libraries rather than writing everything from scratch.
The chip designers also get the benefit of having the ARM-supplied blocks built by people at ARM who have spent many years trying to make better CPU cores and support blocks, who have a lot of experience in what works and what doesn't, and who can spread that R&D cost across the whole industry not just one product.
The chips produced in this way are custom-designed for specific types of product or even specific products (e.g. Apple). They don't waste die area on features that the product doesn't need, which makes them cheaper - with smaller chips they can fit more chips per wafer, and a smaller percentage of chips will be defective. They can add features the product needs, which makes the product smaller and lighter and cheaper because it doesn't need as many chips.
There is also (several slightly different) standard ARM instruction sets, which are widely supported, which means that you can use existing tooling (compilers/linkers/debuggers/etc) to build code for your new chip. This means that you don't need to port the toolchain to your new chip, so you don't need compiler experts unless you've chosen to customise the instruction set. It also makes porting the OS and bootloader a lot easier, as most of it can use standard drivers, you just have to write drivers for your custom bits of the chip and some OS configuration to tell it how everything is connected.
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