The race is on to catch up with Intel

The race is on to catch up with Intel

Summary: Intel has long led the way, but as it gets increasingly harder for the industry to follow Moore's Law, there has been a lot of debate about whether its lead is growing too large. With wireless customers clamoring for the latest technology for mobile processors, semiconductor foundries are suddenly shaking things up.


This gap was no big deal as long as the demand for the most leading-edge technology was relatively limited. TSMC made a small batch of chips—typically programmable logic for Altera or Xilinx or high-end GPUs for AMD or Nvidia—on the latest node, and then took time to fine-tune the process before opening it up to other customers. Other foundries came along a year or so later and competed largely on price. But the mobile revolution has changed all of that. Now customers such as Apple, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Broadcom are leading the charge. They want application processors and basebands on the latest process technology in high volumes to meet demand for smartphones and tablets. To keep pace the foundries are suddenly shaking things up.

Last week ARM and TSMC announced that they will work together to develop chips that will use a 16nm process with FinFETs. TSMC said it hoped to have it in volume production sometime in 2015. These chips will also have cores based on the upcoming ARMv8, ARM’s first 64-bit architecture, which means devices will be able to a make use of more than 4GB of memory. That will be useful for high-end smartphones and tablets a few years down the road, but it’s critical for ARM-based PCs and servers. TSMC is also adding lots of new capacity and has talked publicly about building fabs devoted to large customers, much in the same way that Samsung’s fab in Austin, Texas is devoted to Apple.

Rival UMC announced last month that it had licensed IBM’s 20nm technology with FinFETs and plans to offer it to customers as early as 2015. UMC is also shopping a 10 percent stake in the foundry hoping to lure a strategic partner or large customer such as Qualcomm that can help it keep up with the competition.

GlobalFoundries and Samsung are part of IBM’s joint development alliance, so they have access to the same technology. So far GlobalFoundries still plans to use conventional transistors at 20nm and introduce FinFETs at 14nm in early 2015. Samsung seems to be on a similar schedule—it has previewed early 20nm wafers with planar transistors and 14nm wafers with FinFETs at industry conferences. Both companies are adding lots of new capacity too.

In some ways Intel’s lead isn’t quite as big as it seems. ARM CEO Warren East told EE Times last week that the real competition isn’t Intel’s PC processor, but rather its Atom SoC (System on Chip), which is still based on an older 32nm process with standard planar transistors. That’s true, but Intel has announced plans to speed up SoC development. It plans to release a 22nm version next year followed by 14nm in 2014, perhaps with its Infineon baseband technology integrated on the same chip. Intel is making a little progress in smartphones, with models from Lenovo, Orange and Lava available in some markets, but if it can execute on this plan by 2014 it should be a much stronger competitor in smartphones and other mobile devices.

Conversely the ARM camp has designs on PCs and servers. The first Windows RT devices will go on sale when Windows 8 launches on October 26. This will likely include Microsoft’s own Surface tablet, the Asus Tablet 600 and perhaps a Lenovo tablet all based on Nvidia’s Tegra 3; a Samsung device based on a Qualcomm chip; and a Toshiba tablet using TI’s OMAP4. These will compete directly with x86-based tablets and convertibles running Windows 8. Longer term, several chipmakers including AMD (Sea Micro), AppliedMicro, Calxeda and Marvell are developing ARM-based processors for servers where Intel’s Xeon dominates the market.

The gap between Intel’s process technology and the rest of the industry will be one of the key factors in this battle over the next few years.

Topics: Processors, Laptops, Tablets

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  • So even with all these announced plans which may or may not come true

    Intel will have more than a years lead on them. And even at equal manufacturing process the intels will have a perf/pwr advantange. Personally I'm loving the idea of getting an intel based smartphone and tablet and ultrabook. I will definately not be buying an arm tablet or ultrabook. I may or may not get one more arm smartphone before getting an intel one, just depending on when MS gets out of the past and starts allowing intel based WP devices. They really should have been on that already with WP8, no excuse for missing the airmont/silvermont round.
    Johnny Vegas
    • Can you expand on your decisions please.

      Can you expand a little on why you're loving the idea of an Intel chip in your mobile phone.

      On what rationale are you basing that? Could you be more forthcoming with your reasons why an Intel x86 based chip is any better than an ARM chip.

      Windows and Intel dominated the desktop and laptop environment for decades, but only a fool would disagree that they have completely dropped the ball when it comes to the mobile/tablet sector.

      What benefit to the consumer does an Intel/Windows platform provide. What is going to be their unique selling point?

      Windows Phone has the difficulty of a decade of abysmal hardware and awful mobile OS behind it. It's going to take more than partnering with nokia and the awful Window RT brand name to rectify that.

      Intel have to come up with a chip that is not only 100% compatible with Android but also matches or exceeds ARM at the same cost to stand any chance of competing, otherwise what they are offering will simply not be good enough. Whilst Intel is the market leader in the desktop world, it certainly isn't in the mobile world. So why would any OEM choose 2nd best for their flagship phones?

      I'm struggling to see why you won't buy the market leading device (iPad) purely on the basis it has an ARM chip in it. On what basis do you think an Intel chip is going to make the iPad any better.

      • Well,

        I don't think he said he wasn't going to buy an iPad because it's based on the obsolete A5 ARM design....and nothing can make a iPad better when it's tech is years behind. Sorry, not trying to start and Apple flame war this time around. But you brought them up like it was a technology high point. The latest ARM is the A15 I believe. Not exactly cutting edge.

        Wilst you speak, I detect you might be British. I can see your natural tendency to promote and British company. Intel wasn't in the mobile game because it wasn't where the money was, pass tense. They are seeing it's a value sector now and have rapidly release a leading edge processor.

        I'm thinking THAT is why he made the statement he did. Although I would personally never own a Windows Mobile's the hardware he's waiting for.
      • I'd love to have Windows as a 2nd OS in my phone

        Which I could use by connecting it to ext. display via hdmi. That'd make a perfect all-in-1 mobile device.
      • Tosh

        "Windows Phone has the difficulty of a decade of abysmal hardware and awful mobile OS behind it. It's going to take more than partnering with nokia and the awful Window RT brand name to rectify that."

        Really? I must have been in another dimension while I was using my HTC Wallaby, BlueAngel and Universal because they TROUNCED anything else on the market by lightyears. The iPhone was quite the downgrade when you are used to decent hardware and an (actual) mobile OS.

        "I'm struggling to see why you won't buy the market leading device (iPad) purely on the basis it has an ARM chip in it. On what basis do you think an Intel chip is going to make the iPad any better."

        x86 software compatibility? Is the iPad x86 compatible - did I miss a white paper?

    About 3-years ago, when there was no MOBILE. Now, we are accessing the Internet via mobile operating systems.

    Of course these systems utilize ARM chips (NOT INTEL), with a light footprint, in both smart phones and tablets, with much better battery life than desktops and decent computing capabilities, replete with a smaller and more versatile form factor.


    It means that Intel and Microsoft are NO LONGER necessary for casual computer users to access the web and computer services (email, Office Suites, Social Networking, etc). This astonishing transformation represents a 30-year WINTEL reign that has come to an abrupt end.

    The desktop may not go away tomorrow for business and power users, but for millions of consumers, it's already in the rearview mirror.

    Intel and Microsoft are now scrambling to stay alive, after being struck by a POST-PC bus they never saw coming.

    Meanwhile, Android and iOS continue to eat away at WINTEL's respective shares of the consumer computing market.

    On the other front, ARM rules in the world of mobile computing silicon, and they're just starting to compete with Intel in the server market, with 64-bit ARM chips.

    WHAT INTEL AND MICROSOFT SHOULD BE AFRAID OF is the day when businesses realize they can host all their systems in the cloud and save (billions), by eliminating WINTEL from the equation altogether.

    This could be done by allowing their users to access the enterprise Intranet Portal via a highly customized, Linux based, mobile operating system. This system would be powered by a cluster of 64-bit, low power ARM processors, running in a Linux hosted environment!
    • Umm, the servers will still run on x86

      By moving all the computing power from "on site" to the cloud, the cloud will need a LOT more power if everyone did that.

      And what powers the cloud? ARM? SPARC? Power?

      Its still going to be intel, you are simply "moving" the computational power around, intel still gets all the business
      • You must be retarded...

        ARM 64-bit servers will be used. You may need more of them, but with the money you save by eliminating Wintel it will be worth the price.
        • Not Retarded

          ARM processors are pathetically slow compared to desktop processors. Even the fastest processors are only about 10% of the speed of the average desktop processor. A few server grade Intel chips blow those desktop chips to smithereens. You are not saving money, the cost to have 20-30 ARM processors to replace a single processor would be a nightmare. It also means that to actually take advantage of it, the software would need to be rewritten to become extremely parallelizable which usually borders somewhere between "very difficult" to "impossible."

          Your phone and tablet only seems fast because the software has been stripped bare of anything with any level of complexity or they offload all of the "real work" to hundreds of servers sitting in a data center.
      • He didn't read the news that Intel is still King

        And he doesn't seem to understand cloud/networking/computing in general.

        I agree. What's the difference to MS or Intel from hosting your data on a Wintel machine in your business, to one offsite?

        they still sold a processor and OS.
        William Farrel
    • LOL! And yet they outsell their rivals.

      Imagine that. For a company that is "no longer needed", it sure looks like alot of other companies are needing their products.

      That simple sentence negates EVEYTHING YOU JUST WROTE.

      And why would MS be afraid? Haven't you noticed, they created Windows 8 THAT RUNS ON ARM .

      Seriously, it sounds like you've been living under a rock not to have known about that.

      Sorry, orandy, it sounds like you're really trying to convince yourself about what you wrote, as most people aren't buying the stuff you write.
      William Farrel

        My entire point is that Intel and Microsoft are GOING AWAY. Even offsite hosting will use ARM AND LINUX, over time, specifically for the combined energy advantages, OS stability and STAGGERING COST SAVINGS.

        WINDOWS 8 IS BLOATWARE; a Frankenstein hodgepodge of desktop/touch, that has been piled on top of one outdated MS OS after another...going all the way back to Windows NT. And after all that, MS charges a fortune for licensing this feces.

        Intel does make powerful processors, but they are about as energy efficient as a 1967 Chevy, and the average user only utilizes about 10% of that power. The Enterprise users obviously use considerably more, but at what cost? WINTEL is holding the enterprise hostage to the tune of BILLIONS OF DOLLARS PER YEAR.

        You two obviously know ZERO about technology. Stupid people should REMAIN SILENT.
        • You should take your own advice

          Or maybe do some reading. Although I hate W8 and will never use it, it's not "layered on top" of anything. YOU seem to know nothing of what you write :)

            Microsoft says every new OS (bolted-on shell) is completely re-written.


            If you disable the XP Theme in Windows XP or Aero in Vista I and Vista II, you get a glimpse of of what's underneath...that's right boys, Windows 2000.

            Wanna guess what's underneath 2000?

            That's right, good ol' NT!

            Microsoft is a JOKE.
          • And if you look underneath

            Mac OSX, you'll find a combination of a lot of older OSes.

            The Linux kernel is also rather old.

            What is your point?
            Michael Alan Goff
          • You are really desperate

            When all you can do is argue and call people names. Shows you have nothing to base an opinion on or lack the skill to articulate it.
          • nothing is done from scratch

            if you look under your own skin, you'll see chemical spagetty code dating 4 billion years back.
        • You're funny

          Windows isn't going away for a long time (even if the consumers don't buy Windows 8 as much, they'll sell a lot and make money).

          Intel isn't going away for a long time either. ARM is great, but if you want heavy lifting you'll go for either Intel or AMD.
          Michael Alan Goff
        • If stupid people should remain silent

          why do you insist on ignoring your own advice?

          Tim Cook
    • This stuff matters

      I think you're missing the point of the article. Manufacturing technology matters. The smaller the features, the less power they use, and the less heat they give off. That has to be balanced against the number of features: an x86 processor has a lot more transistors than an ARM processor. That's why ARM devices use less power, and why they have been the choice for mobile devices. But if Intel can use its manufacturing prowess to crank out x86 SOCs that use no more power than ARM SOCs, the game changes. Then the advantage goes to Intel, because all those transistors mean the Intel chip is doing more work per clock cycle. More work done per cycle with no more heat and no more battery drain makes the Intel salesman a happy boy, because it makes the design engineers at Apple and Samsung and everywhere else happy, too.

      Expect this to go back and forth, with Intel getting a feature-geometry advantage, which gets copied by the foundries and shows up in the ARM chips, and then ARM stages a comeback, and then Intel moves to the next process, lather, rinse, repeat until Moore and his Law finally punk out.
      Robert Hahn