Will Intel’s Wonder Chip Arrive Too Late?

With Intel's next "wonder chip" slated to arrive in mid-2015, could it end up being too late to take the lead?

Apr 1, 2014 at 8:00PM

Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) competitive position in the ultra-mobile market continues to improve with each generation. At the 32-nanometer generation with Medfield and Clover Trail, Intel proved that there were no fundamental barriers keeping Intel from penetrating the mobile market (i.e., busting the X86-myth). At the 22-nanometer generation, Intel's parts in both tablets and phones were solidly competitive, particularly on the CPU side of things. The 14-nanometer generation, which should arrive next year, is expected to be the one that "seals the deal."

Intel's 14-nanometer: It's Broxton that matters
By the very end of 2014, Intel expects to launch its very first 14-nanometer mobile processor code-named Cherry Trail. According to Intel's Cara Walker, this part will be aimed at performance and mainstream tablets -- including 2-in-1s and "phablets" -- although it's unclear if Intel's definition of "phablet" is more along the lines of a 7" voice-enabled tablet, or a 5-6" handset.

However, while the Cherry Trail parts should do well in the tablet market, Intel's big hurdle -- and the market that is by far the more important from a growth perspective -- has been the handset market. According to Intel's Investor Meeting, Intel's first truly high-end, "hero device" worthy system-on-chip for phones and tablets is called "Broxton." It will be based on the Goldmont CPU architecture and Intel's next-generation Gen. 9 GPU. It is also targeted at a "mid-2015" launch.

Missing Chip

Source: Intel.

Who are the chief competitors?
Of course, no competitive analysis is complete without a discussion of what the competition will be doing. As of today, Intel's chief competitors in the high-end handset apps processor space are the following:

Samsung is particularly potent given that it also sells about 30% of all smartphones globally and could simply choose to block Intel from competing for that large chunk of the market. Qualcomm is the most aggressive on the chip/integration side of things, and MediaTek is able to very quickly deliver solutions based on off-the-shelf IP.

Fast-forwarding to mid-2015
By the time mid-2015 rolls around, the competitive landscape (in terms of shipping process node from each of these players) should be the following:

  • Qualcomm's MDM9x35 modem built on the 20-nanometer process will ship during the second half of 2014, with a 20-nanometer apps processor with integrated modem likely shipping to customers by Q4 2014 for late Q1/early Q2 2015 device launches.
  • Samsung will likely have a 20-nanometer Exynos part (likely based on ARM's Cortex A57) ready for the Galaxy Note 4 launch in the September/October timeframe, if not for the Galaxy S6 in early Q2.
  • MediaTek, due to its position as a low-cost/high volume player probably will not move to the 20-nanometer node until 2015 after it has matured and costs have come down.

So, this essentially leaves Intel competing with its 22-nanometer Silvermont-based, quad-core Moorefield in phones during the second half of 2014 until the Broxton launch in "mid-2015."


Intel's 2014 mobile platforms. Source: Intel.

But what does "mid-2015" mean?
According to Walker, the timelines given at the investor meeting were silicon ship/availability dates. So, "mid-2015" implies silicon availability in the June-August 2015 timeframe. Given that Merrifield was launched in February 2014 and won't appear in devices until May/June, it is likely that Broxton-powered phones won't appear until 3-4 months after silicon launch. This implies a September-November 2015 timeframe.


Intel's Hermann Eul demonstrating Merrifield. Source: Intel.

Realistically, TSMC and possibly Samsung could be in a position to offer top-paying customers 14/16nm FinFET wafers (even if the yields aren't great). For example, the Galaxy Note 5 and the iPhone 6s should both presumably launch in the Sept. 2015 timeframe and are great candidates for 14/16nm FinFET silicon if it is ready but still expensive. Of course, Intel's 14-nanometer process is denser and likely higher performing, but the gap between Broxton and potential Apple/Samsung/Qualcomm FinFET chip implementations may not be as wide as the process availability gap would imply.

So, what's the bottom line?
If TSMC/Samsung can get 16/14nm FinFET designs into shipping devices by Sept. 2015, then Intel's manufacturing lead will have shrunken to less than one generation. If they cannot and those designs are using 20-nanometer silicon, then Intel's lead will actually be quite wide. Also, if Intel can advance to 10-nanometer designs quickly after the 14-nanometer Broxton (i.e., by mid-2016), then that could be the real "winner" while Broxton is merely "very competitive."

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intel and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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