Skip to main content

Apple And Nvidia To Get 16nm FinFET Chips From TSMC One Quarter Earlier Next Year

Intel is not the only foundry moving to 14nm next year (technically it's happening at the end of this year, but most devices won’t see 14nm chips until early-to-mid next year); TSMC and Samsung also seem ready to move not just to 14/16nm nodes, but also to FinFET transistors.

Intel has had a lead on the two companies for the whole past process generation, which helped the 22nm FinFET (Trigate) Atom get much closer in performance and power consumption to 28nm non-FinFET ARM chips, but once this gap is (mostly) closed, the company should have a much harder time trying to be competitive at that level.

TSMC is expected to start volume production of 16nm FinFET wafers a quarter earlier than expected (Q1 2015), which means the chips should be ready for shipping by Q3 2015. This should shrink the gap considerably between TSMC, Samsung and Intel when it comes to process technology, and it’s due in part to Intel delaying its 14nm mainstream launch for a few quarters while other foundries such as TSMC and Samsung were also pushing hard to have their 14/16nm production ready early.

TSMC and Samsung both have a big customer in common: Apple. While Apple is starting to slowly move its chip manufacturing away from Samsung and more towards TSMC, that transition hasn't fully happened, and it likely never will. Samsung may be Apple’s bigger competitor in the mobile devices market, but it’s also dangerous to have just one supplier. Apple has already learned that lesson with Samsung. Further, when there are two suppliers fighting for more of your business, you always get a better deal on volume pricing.

Apple is not TSMC's only customer for the 16nm FinFET production, either. TSMC has at least another major customer in Nvidia, which has promised since early this year that its next-generation Tegra chip (which is based on the Denver CPU and the Maxwell GPU) will be made at 16nm FinFET, too. That implies TSMC as the supplier, since it’s the only one coming out with 16nm FinFET next year.

Over the past three generations of Tegra chips (Tegra 3, 4, and K1), Nvidia has tended to use the “old” process node, most likely to cut costs, but that has almost always proven to be unwise. Qualcomm became very successful in 2012 when it was the first to move to 28nm while Nvidia was still on 40nm with Tegra 3. That helped Qualcomm stand apart with its chips in both power consumption and performance. Even if Qualcomm’s chips ended up more expensive, OEMs and device customers seemed more than happy to pay the premium.

Nvidia has made the mistake of going with the last-gen node again this year, and its ARMv8 Denver CPU will be 28nm, while Apple’s A8 is likely to be made at 20nm. Even Samsung has moved to 20nm. However, at least in this case, Nvidia’s betting on Tegra K1’s overwhelming performance to make up for it. Still, it would be best if Nvidia could keep up with the rest of the industry in process node adoption, which it intends to do starting next year, by being one of the first to make its chips with 16nm FinFET transistors.

With both Apple and Nvidia as its major customers, and likely more coming soon, it looks like TSMC should do well next year even if Samsung is breathing down its neck with its 14nm FinFET process expected to be ready early next year.

Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.