There’s a rumor that Intel is planning to outsource Core i3 production to TSMC’s 5nm node. This would be the first time the chip giant has built one of its Core CPUs on a different company’s process node. Intel originally planned to announce its future foundry plans on January 21, but this may have changed with the recent appointment of Pat Gelsinger as CEO.
TrendForce reports that Intel is specifically moving the Core i3 to TSMC 5nm for 2H 2021, with a plan to shift mid-range and high-end products to TSMC’s 3nm node in the second half of 2022. TSMC recently reported that its 3nm development is “on track with good progress.” Unlike Samsung, which is adopting gate-all-around (GAA) FETs, TSMC will continue to use FinFET at the 3nm node, albeit FinFET with “innovative features” intended to improve overall performance.
When TSMC shifted from 7nm to 5nm, virtually all of the improvement was to density. Density improved by 1.8x, but power and performance lagged behind. N3 will continue this trend, with a 25-30 percent improvement in power consumption, a 10-15 percent improvement in performance, and a 70 percent improvement in density compared to N5.
It would be a little surprising if Intel shipped 3nm hardware in 2022, even if the company does outsource Core i5/i7/i9 CPUs to TSMC. TSMC typically partners with Apple for its early launches, and Apple returns the favor by buying TSMC’s early node capacity. Launching Intel and Apple on the same brand-new process node, inside the same 3-4 month window, would put even more pressure on yields.
On the other hand, TSMC’s increased capital expenditures in 2021 could be a sign that the company will ramp up more leading-edge capability this time around, to better support multiple 3nm launches in 2022. There’s also the possibility that Intel will move certain markets to TSMC but keep the others for itself. Redwood Cove is intended to debut with Intel’s Meteor Lake architecture and is supposedly designed to be node-agnostic. It may even have been built with an eye towards porting the core to TSMC, though this is highly speculative.
Right now, there’s some ambiguity in Intel’s overall roadmap. We know that Tiger Lake will be followed by Alder Lake in mobile. Intel’s Alder Lake-S desktop CPUs have been picked up in databases, but it’s an open question if Intel will refresh desktop and laptop both with Alder Lake in 2021. Typically, Intel does one hardware platform refresh per year. With Rocket Lake launching at the end of March, it makes a lot more sense for Intel to bring Alder Lake to mobile in 2021 (replacing Tiger), before launching Alder Lake-S in 2022 (replacing Rocket, and finally moving desktop chips to a new node). Presumably, we’d see a hypothetical future mobile platform built at TSMC on 3nm if TrendForce’s report is accurate.
Intel announces its earnings today, and the company is expected to either give a formal update to its foundry plans or announce a delay to allow incoming CEO Pat Gelsinger to review the decision himself. The TrendForce timeline is very aggressive. It typically takes 8-12 months to port a CPU design from one foundry to another, and while Intel has been talking about the need to create foundry-agnostic designs since 2018, Alder Lake hasn’t previously been described as one. Alder Lake, like Lakefield, is a hybrid design featuring both high-efficiency and high-performance CPUs. Lakefield is built using Intel’s 3D chip-stacking technology as well as EMIB (Embedded Multi-die Interconnect Bridge). It isn’t clear if Intel can package chips with these technologies if they are etched at TSMC or if the entire process needs to be handled in-house.
The TrendForce rumor makes sense as far as the idea that Intel would move a single product before launching an entire line-up, but it’s not a guarantee. It’s not an exaggeration to call this a pivotal moment in Intel’s history. No matter what path the company takes, it’ll be making decisions that shape its business for at least the next decade.
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