10nm Sooner Than Expected?

It seems only yesterday that we had the first major GPU released on 16nm FF+ and now we are talking about ARM about to receive their first 10nm FF test chips!  Well, in fact it was yesterday that NVIDIA formally released performance figures on the latest GeForce GTX 1080 which is based on TSMC’s 16nm FF+ process technology.  Currently TSMC is going full bore on their latest process node and producing the fastest current graphics chip around.  It has taken the foundry industry as a whole a lot longer to develop FinFET technology than expected, but now that they have that piece of the puzzle seemingly mastered they are moving to a new process node at an accelerated rate.

TSMC’s 10nm FF is not well understood by press and analysts yet, but we gather that it is more of a marketing term than a true drop to 10 nm features.  Intel has yet to get past 14nm and does not expect 10 nm production until well into next year.  TSMC is promising their version in the second half of 2016.  We cannot assume that TSMC’s version will match what Intel will be doing in terms of geometries and electrical characteristics, but we do know that it is a step past TSMC’s 16nm FF products.  Lithography will likely get a boost with triple patterning exposure.  My guess is that the back end will also move away from the “20nm metal” stages that we see with 16nm.  All in all, it should be an improved product from what we see with 16nm, but time will tell if it can match the performance and density of competing lines that bear the 10nm name from Intel, Samsung, and GLOBALFOUNDRIES.

ARM has a history of porting their architectures to new process nodes, but they are being a bit more aggressive here than we have seen in the past.  It used to be that ARM would announce a new core or technology, and it would take up to two years to be introduced into the market.  Now we are seeing technology announcements and actual products hitting the scenes about nine months later.  With the mobile market continuing to grow we expect to see products quicker to market still.

The company designed a simplified test chip to tape out and send to TSMC for test production on the aforementioned 10nm FF process.  The chip was taped out in December, 2015.  The design was shipped to TSMC for mask production and wafer starts.  ARM is expecting the finished wafers to arrive this month.

Test chips are typically not complex so that there is a greater chance of them working in initial production.  After testing and design changes, more complex products are then sent to the new process nodes.  There is no use sending a large and complex design on a new node and then having that chunk of silicon not working and having no idea why.  The 10nm design starts around a core technology code named “Artemis”.  It is a quad core module based on an unannounced architecture.  It is attached to a single Mali GPU core (not specified, but most likely a T8x0 series GPU).  These are connected by the simpler AMBA AXI interconnect.  The asynchronous bridge acts as the I/O and memory subsystem.  It then attached to the AHB interconnect and other system IP packages.

The expected results of this chip are fairly decent for a non-optimized design on a brand new process node.  ARM expects a 12% increase in performance/speed while consuming the same power as a product produced on 16nm FFLL.  When performance is equal, they expect a 30% reduction in power consumed.

In this slide we see the expected speeds of this Artemis based chip that is not optimized or truly hardened for TSMC’s 10nm FF process.  The results in overall speed are very close to the production ready Cortex A-72 on TSMC’s 16nm FF+ process.  What is interesting is that ARM expects Artemis POP on that same 16nm FF+ process to be a higher frequency part.  These figures suggest that while in such an initial state that raw clock speed will be lower, overall power is going to be significantly lower.

Production designs from ARM using 10nm FF will most likely be high end/premium smart phones and tablets.  The extra performance and power efficiency will allow for greater battery life while pushing rich content.  It will also allow the continued push for smaller and thinner designs without requiring bigger batteries to achieve such performance.

I am pleasantly surprised that TSMC is offering a 10nm FF class process for production in the second half of this year.  We will learn more and more about this particular process as it comes closer to fruition, but we know by these numbers that it will be a more power efficient node with some density improvements that will push it well beyond what 16nm FF+ can provide.

By implementing such a test chip on an advanced process node, ARM is getting a lot of the legwork done to improving their POP services to interested licensees.  Do not expect 10nm mobile parts by the end of this year, but they should actually be arriving by mid-2017 depending on what partners end up doing.  We have seen 16nm parts from TSMC and their partners over the past year, but it seems only now that 16FF+ is rolling along at a good pace.  Jumping to 10nm will take TSMC some time, but all indications point to them being able to actually offer risk production this year with full production next year.