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Intel’s first 7-nanometer computer chip for PCs arrives in 2023, and when it does, the processor won’t be an Intel-only creation. Instead, the company is signaling it’ll also tap manufacturing from TSMC, the foundry behind rival AMD, to produce at least some parts of the chip.
On Tuesday, new Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger provided an update on the company’s CPU roadmap for 2023, which will include two 7nm chips. The first, codenamed Meteor Lake, is targeting PCs. The second, Granite Rapids, will be designed for data centers.
“Both Meteor Lake and Granite Rapids will have compute tiles built on Intel 7nm. And the strength of our new IDM 2.0 model (integrated device manufacturing) means we can strategically use the breadth of our ecosystem to our advantage,” he said.
Gelsinger then made this eyebrow-raising statement: “For the 2023 roadmap we will also leverage our relationship with TSMC to deliver leadership CPU products for our client and data center customers. This is the power of our new IDM 2.0 model combined with a modular approach to design and Intel’s industry leading packaging technologies.”
Gelsinger made the comments as Intel had been mulling whether to outsource the company’s 7nm chip production to a third-party foundry, such as TSMC. Intel’s own 7nm process was originally supposed to arrive in this year’s fourth quarter, but a defect caused the company to postpone its arrival to 2023.
TSMC, on the other hand, is already churning out chips for Apple on the 5nm node, and is expected to begin mass production using its 3nm process by 2023, extending its competitive edge over Intel.
Gelsinger didn’t elaborate on its partnership with TSMC. But the timeline he supplied indicates Intel will be using TSMC’s 3nm process down the line, which aligns with earlier reporting from Taiwanese media outlets.
During his speech on Tuesday, Gelsinger said the 7nm Meteor Lake chip will use Intel’s chip-stacking technology called Foveros. This means the processor will be built by stacking various “compute tiles” over one another, including the CPU, graphics, and AI-focused processors.
“Foveros gives us the ability to mix and match various IPs while optimizing for performance and power efficiency,” he said. In other words, the hybrid approach will let the company take the best from Intel’s 7nm tech, TSMC’s 3nm process, and other foundry partners such as Samsung, to produce what promises to be a high-performing chip.
The strategy also gives Intel time to catch up in the chip wars and still release competitive products, says Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. “I especially like the use of Samsung and TSMC as what I consider gap fillers for some of the highest performance CPU tiles, an area of intense competitive pressure, until the company gets its process house more density and power competitive.”
Indeed, Intel’s decision to leverage TSMC doesn’t mean the company is giving up on chip manufacturing. Quite the contrary. On Tuesday, Intel announced it’s entering the foundry business, and spending $20 billion to construct two new fabs in Arizona, which will be capable of building chips with Intel’s 7nm process. This will put the company in direct competition with TSMC for customers including Qualcomm and possibly even Apple.
Intel’s foundry business will allow clients to make ARM chips and x86 processors. So it’s possible companies such as Microsoft, Google, and even AMD may venture to create custom computer chips using Intel’s manufacturing technology. But for now, TSMC’s manufacturing tech still has the edge.
Going beyond 2023, Gelsinger said Intel’s goal is to return to the company’s “Tick-Tock” approach to shrinking and then optimizing the company’s chip technologies about every two years. In contrast, Intel’s desktop CPUs have been stuck on the 14nm node for six years.
“Now we’ve solidified the 2023 roadmap. Sunil (Shenoy) and I are digging in to say 2024, 2025 unquestioned leadership at the architecture level,” Gelsinger added. “Hey, we were slow on some of those transitions before. We are out to be unquestioned leaders of the CPU.”
When Intel’s 5nm and 3nm processes will arrive remains unclear. But the company’s previous CEO, Bob Swan, said in December that Intel remains invested in the technologies, despite the 7nm troubles.
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