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  • The Curious Case of Samsung's Shannon Chips

    The recent teardowns of Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone have one thing written all over them: Samsung is doubling down on its logic business. Although most of the technology press coverage went to Exynos 7420, the first mobile SoC manufactured at the 14nm FinFET process, Samsung's other logic chips inside the S6 handset equally deserve some attention.

    Some teardowns reported that the S6 handset has used 16 Samsung chips out of a total of 25 semiconductor components. That makes roughly two-third of the silicon content from Samsung the chipmaker supplied to Samsung the smartphone manufacturer. Below are the notable chip appearances that hint about Samsung's grand ambitions for the logic business:

    Shannon 333: Baseband chip
    Shannon 928: RF transceiver chip
    Shannon 533: Power management chip
    Shannon 710: Envelop tracking chip

    Article: Laker Wobegon, where all the layout is above average-exynos-7420-3.jpg
    Samsung has supplied two-third of silicon content in S6 smartphone

    Shannon is the product family name for Samsung's mobile chipsets. The massive scale of Samsung chips used in its premium smartphone just shows that the Korean electronics giant is now even more ambitious about its components business. Samsung’s semiconductor business comprises of memory and logic chips.

    It's worthwhile to note that Samsung's gambit for logic chips isn't new. The Suwon, South Korea–based electronics firm has earlier used the Shannon-based RF transceiver, baseband and power management chips in its Galaxy Note 4 tablet along with in-house Exynos application processors.

    A Brief History of Samsung's Logic Chips

    Samsung Semiconductor—the market leader in DRAM and Flash memory products for many years—got its first major breakthrough in the logic business in 2006 when it snatched the application processor socket from PortalPlayer in Apple's hugely successful media player iPod. Next year, Samsung became the supplier of application processors for Apple's game-changing iPhone.

    Samsung forged SoC skills by producing custom application processors for Apple, and in 2010, the Korean tech giant launched its own application processor Exynos Single 3 in Galaxy S mobile phone. The Exynos family of mobile SoCs has come a long way in terms of horsepower, clock speed and power consumption over the years.

    Article: Laker Wobegon, where all the layout is above average-pyeongtaek-plant.jpg
    The site for Samsung's new chip plant in Pyeongtaek

    There are media reports that Samsung has started working on its own CPU cores as well as a custom GPU for mobile SoCs. Moreover, Samsung is planning to pump billions of dollars to build a new chip plant in Pyeongtaek, a city south of Seoul. The plant is expected to be complete in 2017. Currently, in South Korea, Samsung has memory-chip production lines in Hwaseong and facilities in Giheung that focus on logic chips.

    Samsung's Shannon Moment

    Samsung is already a market leader in chip fabrication and has become a talking point after it surpassed TSMC by producing the first mobile chip at 14nm FinFET manufacturing process. Now take that FinFET flying start and the news about Samsung's $14.7 billion bet on a new chip facility in the backdrop of the recent statement from Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yon.

    Business Korea has reported that Lee is urging top Samsung executives to further boost Samsung's semiconductor design capabilities and has led them to initiate a number of ambitious silicon projects. Why, then, at the eve of this triumphant moment, Lee gave the marching orders for more semiconductor technology prowess. Here, two factors that deserve some attention.

    First, Samsung, the world's second-largest chipmaker after Intel, has been a market leader in both DRAM and Flash memory segments, and there is no imminent challenge on the horizon to its memory silicon market position. Second, with the Exynos application processors improving generation by generation, Samsung is already a key SoC player along with chip behemoths such as Apple, Nvidia and Qualcomm.

    Article: Laker Wobegon, where all the layout is above average-galaxy-s6.jpg
    Shannon footprint is all over S6 phone teardowns

    So where are Samsung's new semiconductor industry initiatives heading? A simple answer could be Shannon. The Korean semiconductor giant hasn't even made a formal announcement about its chipset architecture, and there are hardly any technical details available about the Shannon ICs. But the S6 teardowns clearly show that Samsung will mostly likely make a big push in the logic business other than application processors in the near future.

    There are no indications if Samsung will target its Shannon ICs to outside customers at this time, but a sneak peek at its record points to a strong possibility that Samsung will eventually aim to supply sockets like baseband, power management and NFC controllers to other electronics OEMs. The Korea chipmaker has set in motion an ambitious roadmap for the logic business, and there could be more surprises in 2015 or 2016.

    Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.