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CEO says next generation 14 nm "tock" architecture refresh (Skylake) will not be delayed

Intel Corp. (INTC), which reported its earnings yesterday, gave investors an unwelcome surprise as well when it announced its first 14 nm chip, codenamed Broadwell, is being delayed by a quarter.

I. A Minor Slip

Intel was supposed to start shipping Broadwell chips to OEMs in Q4 2013 (this quarter) giving them time to integrate the chip into their new notebooks, laptops, desktops, and tablets.  Instead the new chips will start shipping in Q1 2014.

Currently, Intel's premium Core Series-branded Haswell chips are produced on a 22 nm process.  But moving from 22 nm node to 14 nm has proved trickier than Intel expected.

IDF 2013
[Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC]

Normally a die shrink involves years of prototyping technologies.  When a production process is mature enough to come out the laboratory, it's installed at the fab.  Equipment must often be updated or replaced to handle the new process once it's moved to a full-scale fab on its final path towards production.  At that point tests runs are executed to study the efficacy of the fab hardware and methodology for the node, typically at lower volumes that the final production runs.

It is typical to find problems with the process at that stage, and it is up to the engineers to institute a set of process method and hardware changes to minimize those defects.  When the fixes are in place, a semiconductor manufacturer crosses its fingers, metaphorically speaking and moves to volume production.
Haswell shot
Intel currently owns 95 percent of the server market (Haswell is pictured).

This approach typically works out for Intel, but this time something went wrong.  The fix failed to minimize the number of wafer defects to the extent expect, and as a result a relatively high percentage of Intel's CPU were turning out dead on arrival.

Intel's new CEO Brian Krzanich insists this is not uncommon stating, "We have confidence the problem is fixed because we have data it is fixed.  This happens sometimes in development phases like this. That's why we moved it a quarter.  We have a strong desire to get Broadwell to market. If I could, there'd be nothing slowing me down. This is a small blip in the schedule, and we'll continue on from here."

In Intel's internal jargon, Broadwell is a so-called "tick" release, which involves simply shrinking the previous processor architecture (Haswell, in this case), while possibly adopting some minor tweaks/improvements based on lessons learned.  By contrast, the next generation after Broadwell will be a new architecture, called a "tock".  That "tock" release -- Skylake – will not be delayed, Mr. Krzanich stated, from its prospective 2015 ship date.

II. Intel Enjoys Healthy Process Lead, but Its Chips are Slower than Samsung's

The delay of Broadwell is a bit of bad news, but it could be much worse; the earnings report for Intel was otherwise better than expected.  And while Intel has yet to establish a strong presence in the smartphone and tablet markets (unlike the server and traditional PC markets that it dominates), it is starting to attract interest in the mobile space, thanks in part to its process lead and the intrinsic power savings that lead provides.

Intel 14 nm fab
Intel is producing 14 nm chips at three key fab facilities. [Image Source: Intel]

Despite the setback, that lead remains relatively large.  International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) in August soft launched 22 nm Power8 architecture high-end server chips and licensable architecture.  However, it's still working with partners to try to bring that chip to the market in physical form.  Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:233028 nm process -- a top third party manufacturer for ARM chips (the mobile industry's dominant architecture), has taped out 16 nm chips.  It's attempting to jump directly from 28 nm to 16 nm.

16 nm is still a larger node than 14 nm, but TSMC didn't seem to have the same problems with its die shrink, opening the floodgates to production with the release of design flows for common chip types (including various ARM CPUs) last month.

On the other hand, Intel's new Bay Trail Atom Z3770 chip faces stiff competition from a 28 nm Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KSC:005930) produced chip -- the A7 processor Apple, Inc. (AAPL) uses in its new iPhone 5S.  The performance of the A7 shows that while process provides some advantages power and processing wise, those advantages may increasingly be unable to overcome the inherent architectural baggage that x86 brings to the table.  

Apple's A7 managed to beat Bay Trail chips, despite a slower clock and larger node size.
Samsung's process is 28nm LP (Gate-First high-κ metal gate (HKMG)), while Intel's 22 nm process is Gate-Last HMKG.  This is a huge win for Samsung as it means that it's producing a better chip on a cheaper mature process -- the best possible scenario.  By contrast, Intel's still fresh 22 nm is not only slower -- it also costs Intel more to produce.

In other words, don't bet against Intel's ARM rivals, even if they're a bit behind on process technology.

Source: CNET via Intel

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Doom and gloom?
By brianbrain on 10/16/2013 6:02:28 PM , Rating: 5
I love how Intel missing their target by one quarter (when was the last time they missed a target, by the way?) is causing the entire tech community to gasp and declare Intel (and x86 along with it) doomed.

TSMC is notorious for having process and associated yield problems, and so is Samsung compared to Intel. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you are going to start hearing stories about how TSMC is "struggling" at 16nm. They have been and continue to struggle with high yields at 28nm, meanwhile Intel is in full production on their 22nm node.

As far as everyone wanting to declare "x86 dead" - it's not. Far from it. A look at any number of benchmarks comparing Intel's latest mobile offerings to ARM's shows a recurring pattern: x86 is gaining more performance per watt with each product cycle than ARM is. Intel is scaling "down" faster than ARM can scale "up", and in ARM's race to scale up at all costs, it is losing the performance per watt advantage.

Also, regarding Apple's A7 "beating" Intel Bay Trail..uhm, what? Incredibly wrong, unless you're talking about graphics performance...which we're not. When it comes to pure CPU performance, Bay Trail mops the floor with the A7 - however when it comes to the graphics portion of the SOC, the A7 takes Bay Trail down in kind. Intel's made HUGE strides in graphics performance over the past few years however, and I would imagine that within the next 2 years, we'll start seeing some of the fastest mobile graphics coming out of Intel, right along side Qualcomm and Imagination Tech (Apple's A7 uses Imagination Tech's GPUs).

That aside, Bay Trail is a fantastic SOC, and is being sold at a great price too. This is a perfect SOC for tablets of all kinds, as its CPU performance per watt is unmatched in the high performance mobile sector. Granted, Intel doesn't have a SOC that is going to take down ARM in the mobile phone race, but ARM doesn't have a SOC or CPU that will take down Intel in the server/desktop market either. The battleground is in the tablet space, and it is heating up *fast*. If Intel is able to dominate the tablet space after ARM's HUGE head start, then watch out - mobile phones are next.

2014-2016 are looking like *very* interesting years.

RE: Doom and gloom?
By augiem on 10/16/2013 6:52:54 PM , Rating: 5
I love how Intel missing their target by one quarter (when was the last time they missed a target, by the way?) is causing the entire tech community to gasp and declare Intel (and x86 along with it) doomed.

Hyperbolic sensationalist click-baiting is the new "journalism". Two cherry-picked data points and a straight line surely spells DOOM or world domination. Teh interwebs gets dumber every day.

RE: Doom and gloom?
By PrinceGaz on 10/17/2013 4:32:26 PM , Rating: 2
It is story worth reporting, if nothing else for people looking to next-gen chips in 2014. There is a lot of rubbish on the interweb, but reading my news on it certainly hasn't made me dum.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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