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September 4, 2023
A teardown of Huawei’s furtively launched new flagship smartphone appears to confirm greater domestic chipmaking capability than previously thought.
Canadian company TechInsights, which specialises in investigating device components, partnered with Bloomberg to get hold of a Huawei Mate 60 Pro unit. The phone was launched with almost no fanfare in China last week, prompting speculation about how Huawei managed to produce such a thing given the extensive restrictions placed on it by the US. Huawei declined to comment on the matter when we contacted it.
It is understood that Huawei can neither buy chips from the likes of Qualcomm and Mediatek, nor use non-Chinese foundries such as TSMC to manufacture its own Kirin chips. The assumption, therefore, was that the new phone must use chips made entirely in China. But Chinese chip-making capability was presumed to be far behind the cutting edge, leading to extensive head-scratching about how such a thing had been achieved.
TechInsight’s blog on the matter seems to confirm that the Mate 60 Pro’s application processor was manufactured by China’s main chip-maker, SMIC, using the 7nm process. Meanwhile the corresponding Bloomberg report states the chip is indeed the presumed Kirin 9000s. It notes that we can’t tell how effective the manufacturing process is but that it remains significant since US sanctions were, in part, designed to make such a thing impossible.
There has been a fair bit of triumphalist propaganda coming out of China in the wake of this launch but the extent of the achievement remains questionable. First and foremost, while 7nm is quite an advanced process, it’s still around five years behind the 3nm process that TSMC and Samsung are currently capable of. Also, we still know little about phone’s modem in a market that is dominated by US company Qualcomm, although Bloomberg reckons the phone is capable of 5G data rates.
Given the questionable justification the US has for using its preeminent economic power to try to ensure nobody else catches up with it, it’s hard to begrudge China this win. But even if SMIC can manufacture 7nm chips at industrial scale, it will be incredibly difficult to close the five-year head-start that chipmakers under some degree of US control have over it. What seems clear, however, is that this will be a high priority for the considerable material and intellectual resources the Chinese state has at its disposal.
As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno
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