Intel has been facing difficulties with its chip production technology, with its 10nm node being at least five years late and getting rebranded as “Intel 7”. However, according to Wikichip Fuse, Intel might be back at the cutting edge later this year with its upcoming Intel 4 node. The company’s main competitor in producing advanced silicon is TSMC, which is known for its N5 node that crams in more transistors per unit of chip area than Intel 7. But Wikichip Fuse predicts that it will be a dead heat when devices with chips made on Intel and TSMC’s next-generation nodes arrive later this year.
TSMC has had its own share of struggles bringing its N3 process tech to market. In fact, the company ended up creating two entirely separate N3 nodes, N3B and N3E. N3B, developed in partnership with Apple, is likely to be seen in chips used by the new iPhone 15 later this year and perhaps a new M3 processor for Apple Macs. On the other hand, N3E is the simpler, easier-to-design-for node that pretty much all other customers will use. Therefore, if AMD or Nvidia make N3 GPUs at TSMC, they’ll be on the N3E node.
The Challenge of Comparing Process Technologies
Comparing process technologies across fabs is notoriously difficult. Even within a single chip on a given node, there are variations. For instance, SRAM memory cell density on TSMC’s new N3 nodes are said to have stalled, offering no improvement over N5. That’s a problem when CPUs and GPUs increasingly have been relying on throwing a load more SRAM-based cache memory at various performance bottlenecks.
It’s not even straightforward to characterize what “N3” means at TSMC, let alone compare TSMC nodes to Intel nodes. However, some critical elements of TSMC’s N3 and Intel’s 4 nodes are looking very similar. Both TSMC’s and Intel’s high-performance logic cells clock in around 125 million transistors per square millimeter. There are other chip elements from both manufacturers that will exceed that density, with TSMC’s N3 node extending all the way to 215 million transistors per square millimeter. But the broad takeaway is that Intel will have caught up with TSMC later this year, according to WikiChip Fuse’s analysis.
Intel’s Future Plans
Intel claims that its next node after Intel 4, known as Intel 20A, will come on stream next year with the arrival of the Arrow Lake CPU architecture. “A” refers to Angstroms, essentially the next unit down the scale from nanometers. TSMC isn’t expecting to produce chips on its equivalent N2 process until 2025. So, in overall terms, we’re looking at Intel on par with TSMC later this year and actually back in the lead in 2024, which is in line with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger’s Intel IDM 2.0 plans and claims for regaining chip production “leadership”. Part one of this plan supposedly arrives later this year in the form of the Meteor Lake CPU family, which has CPU cores (but not other parts of its multi-die package) built on Intel 4.
Intel is expected to catch up with TSMC in advanced silicon production later this year with its upcoming Intel 4 node. Despite the challenge of comparing process technologies, some critical elements of TSMC’s N3 and Intel’s 4 nodes are looking similar. Intel claims that its next node after Intel 4, known as Intel 20A, will come on stream next year, putting the company back in the lead by 2024, in line with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger’s Intel IDM 2.0 plans and claims for regaining chip production “leadership”.