An advanced chip in the new Huawei Mate 60 Pro bodes well for China’s chip aspirations. SMIC has produced its Kirin 9000s processor on the 7 nanometer (nm) node, a sign that the country is strengthening its own developments despite Western sanctions.
TechInsights discovered the chip when it took apart the smartphone on behalf of Bloomberg. The Kirin 9000s is the product of SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), China’s largest chipmaker. The design builds on an earlier 7nm chipset from mid-2022 that could only be produced in small quantities for Bitcoin miners. Since then, the yield rate has apparently become high enough to deliver processors at consumer scale.
It’s a breakthrough in China’s chip plans, which have been stalled by Western sanctions for several years. ASML, for example, is still allowed to supply DUV chip-making machines until Jan. 1, 2024, while other equipment has been banned from being exported for some time. Despite those restrictions, then, SMIC has managed to reach 7nm. However, Bloomberg points out that the Americans have tried to keep the Chinese restricted to 14 nm, a technology that is now eight years old. 7 nm is three years newer than that: the first mass-produced chip of that size was the A12 processor in the 2018 iPhone XS and XR.
Thus, it appears that China is in the process of catching up significantly against Western competition. According to TechInsights’ Vice Chair Dan Hutcheson, the Kirin 900s is a “pretty important statement” for the country. It seems that Beijing at least won’t let export restrictions hold it back for long, although it’ll certainly take time to really get on par with parties like TSMC, Intel and Samsung.
Not every process with the same number of nanometers is the same: previously, the number referred to the gate length, or size of the transistor gate. Since 1997, however, this reference point has not been universally adopted, so the processes of Intel, TSMC, Samsung and SMIC, for example, are not like-for-like iterations if they use the same number. However, the general rule is that a smaller production process provides more efficiency and thus more theoretical power for the same size chip.