Intel is reportedly considering changing its process node numbering system in a bid to look better against Samsung and TSMC. As solutions to Intel’s problems go, renumbering its process nodes isn’t going to close technical gaps between itself and TSMC. If Intel is serious about entering the client foundry business, however, it may need to patch up its marketing.
Ann Kelleher, the Hillsboro VP in charge of Intel’s manufacturing group, has notified employees that “Intel plans to change its numbering conventions to match the industry standard,” according to Oregon Live. The phrase “industry standard” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here because there is no ‘industry standard.’ As we’ve discussed in the past, process nodes are arbitrary designations intended to convey a sense of progress. TSMC’s 7nm technology is different than Intel’s still-unlaunched 7nm, which is different from Samsung’s 7nm.
The chart above shows a comparison between 10nm technologies for Intel, TSMC, and Samsung. Intel’s contacted gate pitch and minimum metal pitch are both much lower than what TSMC and Samsung defined for their own 10nm or even 7nm, in a few specific metrics. When Intel claims that its 10nm technology looks more like TSMC and Samsung’s 7nm technology, it’s telling the truth. If Intel changes its node naming to more closely reflect what TSMC and Samsung are doing, it will arguably improve a customer’s ability to understand comparisons between the different foundries.
The significance of this proposed transition is that Intel is making it in the first place. Intel defined the names for various nodes in the past because it was always the company moving to those nodes first. TSMC sometimes offered its own half-node options and it hasn’t always moved in lockstep with Intel, but it’s now leading the entire semiconductor industry. It makes more sense for Intel to rebrand its arbitrary numbers to align with what its competitors are doing.
But make no mistake: Intel might figuratively grit its teeth about changing its naming scheme, but the current system genuinely leaves people with the wrong idea. I don’t know what Intel would adopt, but if the company goes through with this, you may see some frustration over Intel supposedly ‘cheating’ to hit whatever number they alternately use. It won’t be true.
Intel may be changing its branding to align with its own plans to build Core CPUs outside of Intel itself. If Intel launches a chip built at TSMC on 5nm and its own CPUs are still shipping on 10nm, that’s going to look odd. It’ll look especially odd if Intel plans to jointly manufacture its own hardware simultaneously. Whenever a company dual sources, there’s a bit of a dance to make certain all of the versions of the product from all of the different manufacturers perform similarly. We don’t have the details of exactly what Intel is planning for the future, but it’s possible the company doesn’t want to try and explain how two different chips can be built on two different process nodes while simultaneously extolling the benefits of its own manufacturing.