Why Intel’s 14-Nanometer Products Could Change the Game

In the semiconductor industry, the mantra has always been, "cheaper, faster, and smaller." This principle has been the steam engine that evolved the gigantic, room-sized supercomputers in 1998 into today's thin and light laptops. The fundamental building block of all semiconductor products is the transistor, and those with the cheapest and fastest transistors are ultimately poised to win the race.

Let's talk about Intel
It is no secret that Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) has the world's best transistors when performance, power, and area are taken into account. The company routinely moves to smaller geometries years ahead of its nearest competitors and, at the same time, has made countless innovations at the actual transistor level that have kept manufacturing technology at least a generation ahead on power and performance.

Now, the natural inclination here is to raise the red flag on these claims, particularly given that Intel's product offerings in the mobile world often lag those from competitors in a number of meaningful ways. For example, Intel's 22-nanometer FinFET-based Bay Trail system-on-chip, while offering leadership CPU performance, tends to lag the latest from Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) in a number of key areas (feature integration, graphics performance, etc.). How does one reconcile the claims made above with these truths?

It's not just about manufacturing
There is no doubt that Intel has the world's best semiconductor technology, but the actual design of the products (known as the "micro-architecture") is just as important, if not more so, to the performance, power, and cost of a particular chip. Intel's 22-nanometer designs weren't created with density in mind, nor were they intended to have the level of integration demanded by todays' tablet and smartphone markets.

Intel gets it
Well, that's the bad news. The good news is that Intel looks to remedy these deficiencies with two of its upcoming products. The first, a high-end platform known as "Broxton," will be built on the company's next-generation 14-nanometer process, designed with density in mind, and integrate the correct features into the chip commensurate with a leadership tablet/smartphone part in mid-to-late 2015.

At the low end, the company realizes that most mass-market phones (and, increasingly, tablets) will require integration of connectivity (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, etc.) and cellular (either 3G or LTE/LTE-Advanced), as well as the other blocks that typically come with a mobile SOC. Intel will bring its first-generation part, known as SoFIA, to market in late 2014, built on TSMC's (NYSE: TSM  ) 28-nanometer process. A follow-on part in early 2015 will be similar, but with integrated LTE-Advanced (rather than 3G).

Moving away from TSMC in 2015
In late 2015, Intel will, as it stated at its most recent investor meeting, move SoFIA to its internal 14-nanometer process. Not only does this give Intel a cost-per-transistor savings, but it enables some pretty significant performance and power improvements. Intel will also see higher utilization of its factories (which could improve gross margins), and by the time the 14-nanometer product rolls around, Intel will already be building off of a decent-sized market share base, contra-revenue free.

How do Qualcomm and MediaTek compete?
With Intel currently offering sub-optimal products, Qualcomm and MediaTek essentially "own" the smartphone and tablet apps processor markets, even without in-house manufacturing (or even a manufacturing technology advantage). However, if Intel is out in late 2015 with a fleet of top-to-bottom 14-nanometer, density-optimized processors, then it will be able to take some rather significant share from these competitors.

Qualcomm will be harder to take down than MediaTek, given its gigantic cash hoard and enormous patent licensing stream. Further, Qualcomm drives TSMC exceptionally hard in a bid to get access to next-generation transistor technology. Transistor technology is a critical enabler.

Foolish bottom line
At the 14-nanometer generation, Intel has a chance to take the lead with a significant chunk of the mobile market and defend its server share rather aggressively. The design teams need to deliver, though, using this amazing transistor technology provided by the process teams. If they can, Intel will become like a force of nature in the mobile market -- one that cannot be ignored.

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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2014, at 5:15 PM, techy46 wrote:

    Interestingly, my Asus T100 with Intel Atom Bay Trail 22nm Inside 64Gb SSD 2Gb memory microS, USB and Office 2013 is a 2-in-1 notebook tablet that costs $379 and beats my Toshiba Satellite that cost $949 two years ago. I don't really care about GPUs and LTEs as long as my Wi-Fi works fast.

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2014, at 5:12 PM, keeperoftheq wrote:

    Intel May Exit the Mobile World in 2015 Barring Success in 2014.

    The mobile industry has a number of power players that tend to drive the success and innovation of the industry as a whole, and while the makeup of this pool of companies can change at any time it’s been pretty consistent over the last few years. Samsung dominates the overall smartphone market and Sony supplies more camera sensors than anyone else. Qualcomm and Samsung pretty much rule the chipset market, but MediaTek has taken an upswing over the past year and is now powering a number of mid to entry-level smartphones and tablets. Intel on the other hand has yet to get a good foothold in the door, and apparently this isn’t being unnoticed by some higher-ups at Intel either. A rumor that’s said to be circulating in the upstream supply chain in Taiwan is saying that Intel might be considering quitting the mobile business if it doesn’t see some significant product gains in 2014. While this likely won’t impact the mobile market too much since Intel doesn’t have many products featuring its processors, there could be some other ramifications as well.

    Recently Intel’s partnership with Lenovo ended, marking another manufacturer that likely won’t be using Intel’s chipsets in 2014, but they have been working on other partnerships to replace that one. They’ve also been pulling out the big guns to try to sell their lofty goal of 40 million tablets by year’s end by giving some significant incentives for manufacturers to use Intel chips in their upcoming products

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2014, at 11:46 PM, Oregonboy wrote:

    Intel HAD a chance...lets face it..THEY BLEW THE ENTIRE MOBILE MARKET. TOO LITTLE TOO LATE!! Look at the lineup for the next generation offerings from Samsung...ALL ARE SNAPDRAGON. Intel offerings are NOT as integrated NOR Graphics superior. PERIOD!! You think Qualcomm is standing by to let Intel in the DOOR? Qualcomm has plans to TAKE EVERYTHING...Servers, Desktop, Laptop, Tab and Phones. They are hungry...

    In 2015 you will hear a first of MANY Intel layoffs. At the end of the day Intel will have ~ 50K employees worldwide..and become what they rightfully deserve...a FOUNDRY!

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2014, at 2:38 PM, carlthecat wrote:

    What?

    "This principle has been the steam engine that evolved the gigantic, room-sized supercomputers in 1998 into today's thin and light laptops."

    Room sized super-computers in 1998? How about 1978 instead?

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2014, at 3:00 PM, byteMeImblonde wrote:

    Intel muscles itself into faux low-power via it's manipulation of hardware reduction. It won the performance wars by cranking up CPU frequencies. It's done everything it can to avoid the hard work of building smart circuits - whether they run at high clocks or smaller size. Methinks they've be so busy pursuing these big-finance solutions they've missed the low-hanging design fruit and now find themselves thwarted by patents they can only license from others at high cost.

  • Report this Comment On January 30, 2014, at 7:52 AM, rocket7777 wrote:

    Intel did not miss anything. It is milking x86 still and does not want to compete in low margin as long as possible.

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