At CES this year, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) quietly announced that it was now shipping its next generation tablet processor, code-named Cherry Trail, to customers. Intel declined to provide detailed specifications, only telling investors that specifications would be revealed as customers announced devices using the chip. But that's not the real story here. The real story is that Intel has been mass producing and is now shipping 14-nanometer system-on-chip parts.
What's the big deal?
Intel has stated in the past that it develops two different flavors of its chip manufacturing technologies: one tuned for higher-performance CPUs and one tuned for system-on-chip products. However, at the Intel Developer Forum this year, Mark Bohr -- the Intel Senior Fellow who oversees the development of these technologies -- had the following to say with respect to this:
In the past Intel would develop two flavors of each technology; one flavor that we would refer to as the CPU version for the high-performance CPUs, another flavor for the SoC version, the system-on-chip version, and you could probably think of the SoC version as a superset of the CPU version.
Same basic transistor structure, basic transistor materials, design rules, minimum interconnect pitches at the lower layers. But what the SoC menu would add would include high-voltage transistors, ultra-low leakage transistors for the always-on, always-connected circuits, precision resistors, inductors, and a few other elements. Think of SoC as a superset of the CPU process.
As I started out saying, Intel used to develop two versions – CPU and SoC. Now those versions have blended together so much that it's no longer fair way to describe them as two versions. So it's really a whole spectrum of flavors or versions that we can offer from the higher-performance end all the way down to the much lower power end and with various features and interconnect options.
Additionally, it's interesting to note that there had usually been a significant time delay between the CPU and the SoC process flavors. For example, the CPU version of Intel's 22-nanometer process went into production in late 2011 with products on shelves in early 2012. The 22-nanometer SoC products, on the other hand, didn't show up in the market until around September 2013 with Bay Trail, implying production start around June 2013. That's almost a two year gap.
With the first 14-nanometer low-power system-on-chip from Intel -- the Cherry Trail product mentioned above -- currently shipping, this implies that manufacturing began sometime in the fourth quarter of 2014. Given that the 14-nanometer "CPU" Broadwell chip began production in the second quarter of 2014 (although as Bohr said, the lines between "CPU" and "SoC" have blurred), this is about a two quarter delta -- a big improvement.
This means good things for Intel going forward
It is well-known that Intel's competitive positioning in its key PC and server markets is quite strong, but the company still needs to gain a foothold in the tablet/phone markets. Having a manufacturing lead over the other vendors -- while not the end-all, be-all for product competitiveness -- certainly serves as a nice advantage.
Management has indicated in the past that it hopes to essentially eliminate the time-to-market gap between its SoC products and its CPU products. Given that Intel has shrunken that gap rather significantly in going from the 22-nanometer generation to the 14-nanometer generation, it will be interesting to see if Intel can narrow that gap further at the 10-nanometer generation.
At any rate, it seems that from a manufacturing process perspective, Intel is doing quite well in bringing its A-game to mobile system-on-chip products. This doesn't mean that Intel is guaranteed victory -- architecture is also very important and something Intel needs to improve with its Atom products -- but it's a good step in the right direction.