If you’ve been following along with Intel’s troubles moving away from its 14nm process to 10nm over the years, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the company is now having trouble getting its 7nm process off the ground. On its Q2 earnings call today, Intel revealed that it’s pushing back its previously planed 7nm rollout by six months—and that yields for the process are now a year behind schedule, Tom’s Hardware reported. This means that Intel can’t produce 7nm chips in an economically viable way at the moment.
Intel originally expected to catch up with AMD’s 7nm chips in 2021, but didn’t say when in 2021. With these new delays, that puts Intel’s 7nm chip debut in 2022, at the earliest. By then, AMD may already be on its Ryzen 6000 5nm chips on Zen 4 architecture, according to its roadmap—though that’s assuming AMD doesn’t run into any delays itself.
However, there is some good news on the 10nm front. From Intel’s Q2 2020 press release, the company says it’s “accelerating its transition to 10nm products this year” and growing its portfolio of 10nm-based Intel Core processors. That includes its Tiger Lake chips and its first 10nm-based server CPU Ice Lake. Additionally, Intel said it “expects to deliver a new line of client CPUs (code-named Alder Lake), which will include its first 10nm-based desktop CPU, and a new 10nm-based server CPU (code-named Sapphire Rapids).”
Intel originally announced its 10nm chips in 2015, but confirmed it was having yield issues and other problems that July. From there, its first 10nm Cannon Lake chips were supposed to debut in the second half of 2017, but by April 2018 Intel was still having poor yields, so still no chips. By 2019, Intel had refined its 10nm fabrication process, started seeing better results, and said it would be “on shelves” by holiday 2019. But we still don’t have consumer laptops or desktops with 10nm chips, aside from the processors with Iris Pro Graphics. The 10th generation of Intel mobile and desktop processors are still on 14nm. Will we see 10nm chips before 2020 is over? Based on what Intel said in its earnings call, it’s possible.
But more importantly, Intel doesn’t expect its 10nm node to be as good as its 14nm. Intel’s Chief Financial Officer George Davis admitted this at a March Morgan Stanley financial analyst event:
“This just isn’t going to be the best node that Intel has ever had. It’s going to be less productive than 14 [nanometer], less productive than 22 [nanometer] … The fact is, like I said, it isn’t going to be as strong a node as people would expect from 14nm or what they’ll see in 7nm.”
But will 7nm be a strong node? A lot of the same issues the company encountered with 10nm seem to be cropping up again, and if this is a case of history repeating itself, it could be 2025 until we see 7nm chips from Intel. That’s worst case scenario, and doesn’t sound like something Intel would stand for, especially given the heated competition from AMD at the moment. The company has also lost some notable employees, like Jim Keller, most recently senior vice president of Intel’s silicon engineering group.
But in the meantime, hopefully Intel’s 10nm chips are good enough to outpace its 10th-gen processors even slightly. There’s not much left to gain via the higher-end cores on the current 14nm node, unfortunately. The Core i9-10900K only has a 300 MHz higher max boost clock than the Core i9-9900K (5.3 GHz versus 5.0 GHz) due to Intel’s thermal velocity boost and turbo boost technologies—but those boosts only kick in if the CPU is at a low enough temperature, and I couldn’t get the Core i9-10900K to reach 5.3 GHz in my testing.
On the flip side, AMD has a lot of headroom on its 7nm process to keep pushing for higher clock speeds, whether or not they keep or increase the core count. AMD may have muddied the water a bit by releasing a second, near-identical version of its third-gen Ryzens, but it’s bringing its Ryzen 4000 mobile processors to pre-built desktops soon, and Zen 3 is on track to launch later this year, Rick Bergman, AMD’s executive vice president of computing and graphics, wrote in a blog post.
And then there’s Apple, which is officially releasing Macs with its own custom ARM processor. The company is eventually phasing out Intel altogether—and maybe these stumbles had something to do with it.