7nm vs 10nm vs 14nm: Fabrication Technology Explained

“7nm, 10nm, 12nm, 14nm, 16nm….”

You’ll generally find this number when you’re going through the specs of Semiconductor devices like a Processor.
Product reviewers and Tech Experts talk about this number like its a big deal.

So, what exactly is this nanometer number?

Well, as a consumer, all you need to know that this number represents the size of transistors (or components) in a Processor (We will get back to the actual meaning later). The transistors are the buildings block of a CPU and digital circuits.

When we combine transistors in different ways, we obtain logic circuits like AND, NOT, OR Gates. Then these gates can be used to obtain Adders, Multipliers, and other different types of complex circuits.

A modern processor may contain billions of transistors. For instance, AMD Ryzen’s 1st Generation had 4.8 billion transistors in their 8-core Zeppelin die.

We need to shrink the size of transistors so that we can increase their count in the same unit area.

Nanometer Technology Benefits

So, what happens when we shrink the size of a Transistor?

This results in two major improvements:

1) Performance: As the size of the transistor decreases, we can fit a higher number of them in the same unit area. Hence, we can achieve higher processing power from the same sized processor.

2) Power Efficiency: Smaller transistors require less power for their functioning. This reduces the overall power consumption of the chip. Less power also results in the generation of less heat and thus allowing us to increase the clock speeds further.

This was explained in Moore’s Law which states that the number of transistors in an Integrated Circuit doubles every two years because of the advancement in manufacturing technology. We also call this Die Shrink.

Moore's Law 1970 to 2018

Moore’s Law: The Increase in the Number of Transistors

This not only leads to performance improvement in semiconductor devices over the years but also reduces their size. This is the reason why computers keep getting smaller and faster.

Here’s a video from Linus to help you learn more about the same.

 

Hence, this nanometer value or the Fabrication Process matters a lot, right?
So, the next time you compare two products, pay close attention to this number.

And now for those of you who want to go into the details, here’s the real deal:

These nanometer values don’t actually represent the size of the transistor, but rather the fabrication technology used to manufacture them. A long time ago, the gate pitch of a Transistor was same as the Fabrication Technology (nm value), but this is not the case anymore. In fact, this has now become just a marketing gimmick that holds no physical significance.

And there is no universal standard to calculate this value either. Different brands have different ways to calculate this. For instance, the 10nm from TSMC is not equivalent to the 10nm from Samsung.
What Intel calls as 10nm, is similar to what TSMC calls as 7nm. Thus, there is no universal standard for the same.

So, what matters now?

Transistor Density!

The fabrication process with a higher transistor density is usually better. Move on to the next section to find the ranking of different process nodes based on their density.

    7nm vs 10nm vs 12nm vs 14nm: Transistor Densities

We all have been waiting for Intel’s 10nm Processors since 2016. And as of 2018, Intel has only managed to launch one 10nm chip, i.e. Core i3-8121U for Notebooks.

But one big reason for the delay is the fact that Intel is taking a big leap forward. What Intel’s 10nm brings is even better than the 7nm offerings of Samsung and TSMC. Here’s a look at the transistor densities of different semiconductor chip manufacturers.

Transistor Density Comparison

Transistor Density Comparison

While there’s hardly any sign of Intel’s 10nm in Mainstream Processors, TSMC’s 7nm has already entered mass production and is used for manufacturing of Apple A12 Bionic, Kirin 980, Snapdragon 855, and the Zen 2 Architecture (Ryzen 3000 Series).

As Zen 2 is based on TSMC’s 7nm HPC Process, it has presented AMD with a great opportunity to capture some market share from Intel in 2019.

I’ve ranked different fabrication technologies to make it easy to understand which process is the best. As of November 2019, TSMC’s 7nm+ is the most advanced note that has entered mass production.

RankProcess NameApproximate Transistor Density (MTr/mm²)
#1TSMC’s 5nm EUV171.3
#2TSMC’s 7nm+ EUV115.8
#4Intel’s 10nm100.8*
#5TSMC’s 7nm (Mobile)96.5
#6Samsung’s 7nm EUV95.3
#7TSMC’s 7nm (HPC)66.7
#8Samsung’s 8nm61.2
#9TSMC’s 10nm60.3
#10Samsung’s 10nm51.8
#11Intel’s 14nm43.5
#12GlobalFoundries 12nm36.7
#13TSMC’s 12nm33.8
#14Samsung / GlobalFoundries 14nm32.5
#15TSMC’s 16nm28.2

*Intel’s 10nm’s density is based on their estimation for Cannon Lake in 2018. The actual density for the current Ice Lake chips could be much lower. If Intel ever brings 10nm to their HPC products, the density could be very close to TSMC’s 7nm HPC Process which powers Zen 2 and Navi 10.

You should note that the above densities are approximate & estimated in some cases while some of them are the actual densities. But nevertheless, that won’t affect the ranking. We also use these transistor densities for calculating the Centurion Mark for Mobile Processors.

If we go deeper into the matter, Intel’s 10nm is slightly denser than TSMC’s 7nm for SRAM. But TSMC’s 7nm is actually denser than Intel for logic. This complicates the thing even more, right?

So, let’s just focus on the above table for now.

As Intel’s 10nm is not yet in mass production, TSMC’s 7nm is the clear winner for now.

Density is calculated in terms of MTr/mm² which stands for millions of transistors per square millimeter.

Intel uses the following formula to calculate the density:

Transistor Density Calculation Formula

Calculation of Transistor Density

 

    Fabrication Technologies of Different Manufacturers

Now let’s have a look at the different process nodes of various manufacturers like TSMC, GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and Intel.

TSMC

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the largest independent semiconductor manufacturer. TSMC works with some of the largest chip designers in the world like Nvidia, AMD, Qualcomm, Apple, Huawei, and MediaTek. As of January 2019, TSMC is leading the race with its 7nm Fabrication process that has already entered mass production and powers devices like iPhone XS, and Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

 

5nm

TSMC 5nm Node uses EUV and improves logic density by 1.8x compared to 7nm. For SRAM, the density is 1.3x higher. Just like the 7nm Node, 5nm will have two variants with one optimized for Mobile and other for HPC. The mobile node will allow 15% higher performance or 30% lower power consumption. The HPC variant will instead offer 25% higher performance over 7nm.

Apple’s A14 Chip in 2020 will likely utilize the 5nm Mobile Node while AMD’s Zen 4 could utilize the 5nm HPC node in 2021.

Current Status: In Risk Production. Will enter Mass Production in the first half of 2020.

 

7nm+

TSMC 7nm+ has a 20% higher density when compared to their 7nm Node. It is their first process that uses EUV (Extreme ultraviolet lithography). However, it will only use EUV in some critical layers. This node allows for either a 10% higher performance or a 15% power reduction. Mobile SOCs will likely go for power reduction while AMD’s upcoming Zen 3 will likely go for higher performance.

Used In: A13 Bionic (iPhone 11 Series), Kirin 990 5G (Mate 30 Pro), AMD Zen 3 (Upcoming)

 

7nm 

First up, we have the most hyped 7nm Process of TSMC.

There are actually multiple variants of TSMC’s 7nm Process. The 7nm FF has an approximate transistor density of 96.49 MTr/mm² while that of 7nm HPC is 66.7 MTr/mm².

The 7nm FinFET Process is 1.6 times Denser than TSMC 10nm’s Process. Also, the 7nm process results in 20% better performance and 40% power reduction as compared to their 10nm technology.

Used In: A12 Bionic (iPhone XS Max), Snapdragon 855, Kirin 980, Zen 2 (Ryzen 3000 Series), Radeon RX 5700 Series

 

10nm 

TSMC’s 10nm node is 2x Denser than their 12nm/16nm. It is also 15% faster and 35% power efficient. The density of TSMC’s 10nm Process is 60.3 MTr/mm².

Used In: Apple A11 Bionic, Kirin 970, Helio X30

 

12nm/16nm 

As compared to their 20nm Process, TSMC’s 16nm is almost 50% faster and 60% more efficient. Its density is 28.2 MTr/mm².

TSMC’s 12nm technology is more or less a marketing gimmick and is similar to their 16nm node. This 12nm node is simply their rebranded 16nm Process with better gate density and few optimizations. The estimated density of their 12nm Process is around 33.8 MTr/mm².

Both TSMC’s 12nm and 16nm Process powers lots of Kirin and MediaTek Processors, Nvidia’s GeForce 10 series and more.

Used In: Nvidia Turing GPUs (GeForce 20 & 16 Series), Kirin 960, Kirin 659, Kirin 710, Helio P60, Helio P70, Apple A10 Fusion

Intel

Intel is the second the largest chip manufactures in the world. Once upon a time, Intel was leading the semiconductor market, but the delays in their 10nm Process have pushed them quite behind.

7nm 

In December 2018, Intel announced that they are working on their 7nm Process and it is right on track. However, I wouldn’t be too sure of that considering how many times they have delayed their 10nm Node. Intel’s 7nm Process will be fabricated using EUVL (Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography). You can learn more about it at AnandTech.

Intel recently admitted that they were too aggressive with their 10nm Node by increasing density by 2.7x. With 7nm, they will be less aggressive, and we can expect around 2x density. I expect it to be somewhere around 160-200MTr/mm²

Current Status: In Development

10nm 

Intel’s 10nm Process was first expected to launch in 2016. As of late 2018, it has been delayed 3 times!

This node will be used in Intel’s 10th Gen Mobile Processors (Ice Lake). Due to low yields and struggle to achieve higher clock speeds, we are not expecting to see 10nm in Desktop before 2021 (or even 2022).

It is 2.7x times denser than their 14nm Process and its density is somewhere around 100 MTr/mm² (Cannon Lake). Intel’s 10nm is somewhat equivalent to what other companies call as 7nm.

We currently do not have information about the density of 10nm Ice Lake chips and whether it is the same node as before or whether Intel has made some significant changes to their process in order to achieve higher yields.

Current Status: In Mass Production for Low-Frequency Mobile Parts. Not yet ready for HPC devices.

Used In: Core i3-8121U, Ice Lake Mobile Chips

14nm 

Intel’s 14nm Process has so far been used in their 5 Generations of Processors. Starting from Broadwell to Coffee Lake, we have the same 14nm Technology. However, this 14nm Technology still outperforms TSMC’s 16nm/12nm and Samsung’s 14nm.

The estimated transistor density of Intel’s 14nm Process is 43.5 MTr/mm².

Intel also introduced their 14nm+ and 14nm++ that bring minor improvements.

Used In: Intel’s 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Generation Mobile & Desktop Processors

What is 14nm+, 14nm++, and 14nm+++?
Due to the delays in their 10nm node, Intel simply refined their 14nm node with minor improvements in performance and power consumption and named them as 14nm+ and 14nm++. These are only minor improvements and nowhere close to a die shrink.
Samsung

In July 2017, Samsung overtook Intel as the largest chipmaker in the world. The transistor density of Samsung chips is on par with TSMC for almost the same process nodes. Samsung makes chips for Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia, and many other Tech Giants. Samsung also licensed its 14nm Process to GlobalFoundries.

7nm 

Samsung’s 7nm node improves the performance by 20% while reducing power consumption by 50%. Samsung has deployed the EUV technology for the production of its 7nm chips. The density of their 7nm Process is 95.3 MTr/mm².

Used in: Exynos 9825, Nvidia Ampere (2020)

8nm 

Samsung’s 8nm process is also known as 8nm LPU (Low Power Ultimate) and it is just an extension to their 10nm process. In terms of transistor density, it is quite similar to TSMC’s 7nm HPC Process. Its density is 61.18 MTr/mm².

This technology is used to manufacture their Exynos 9820 Chip that will be used in the upcoming Galaxy S10 & Galaxy Note 10 in 2019.

Used In: Exynos 9820

10nm 

Samsung 10nm Process has two variants, the 10nm LPE (Low Power Early) and 10nm LPP (Lower Power Plus). The 2nd Generation of their process (10nm LPP) delivers 10% higher performance.

It is 1.6 times denser than their 14nm Process and its density is 51.82 MTr/mm².

Used In: Snapdragon 835, Snapdragon 845, Exynos 9810, Exynos 8895, Exynos 9610

11nm 

The 11nm LPP (Low Power Plus) Process delivers 15% higher performance as compared to their 14nm LPP (Low Power Performance) Process. However, the power consumption remains the same. This process is more like an extension to their 14nm process.

Used In: Snapdragon 675

14nm 

Samsung’s 14nm Process is one of the most widely used fabrication nodes that is used for Nvidia’s GeForce 10 Series, and many Qualcomm & Exynos chips. It has multiple variants, the 14nm LPE (Low Power Early) and 14nm LPP (Low Power Performance). The Transistor density of this process is 32.5 MTr/mm².

Used In: Nvidia GeForce 10 series, Snapdragon 820, Snapdragon 821, Exynos 8890, Exynos 7870

GlobalFoundries

GlobalFoundries is an American Semiconductor company. They have fabricated processors for various brands like Qualcomm, AMD, and Broadcom.

 

7nm 

Even though it is estimated to be denser than the TSMC’s 7nm, GlobalFoundries has stopped their 7nm Development for now and they won’t be competing with TSMC.

You can learn more about that news here.

Current Status: Development Halted

 

12nm 

GlobalFoundries 12nm Process brings 15% performance improvements over its predecessor and 10% improvement in density. The Ryzen 2000 Series is built on the GloFo’s 12nm Node.

Used In: Zen+ Architecture (Ryzen 2000 Series)

14nm 

GlobalFoundries actually licensed their 14nm Technology from Samsung.

Used In: AMD Vega Series, Ryzen 2nd Gen APUs, Radeon RX 500 Series

    Zen 2 vs Sunny Cove

2019 is expected to be a great year for the Computer Hardware industry. We are expecting stiff competition between AMD, Intel, and Nvidia. It will be interesting to see how well does AMD’s Navi GPU performance. But we will have a discussion about the GPUs sometime later. This section is meant for the CPUs.

When AMD introduced Ryzen in 2017, we got some amazing processors at a great price value. But even after the launch of their 2nd Generation, AMD is significantly behind in Single-Threaded performance. Though AMD is currently a better the best choice for workstation builds and for content creators, Intel continues to be the preferred choice among gamers.

Will it change with the launch of Zen 2?

Probably yes.

Ryzen 3000 Series (Matisse) based on Zen 2 Architecture will be available during the mid of 2019.

If we look at the Process Node, Zen 2 will be manufactured using TSMC’s 7nm HPC process that has a density of 66.7 MTr/mm² which is almost twice that of Zen+. When compared to Intel’s 14nm, Zen 2 is 53% denser.

AMD Zen Architecture Roadmap

Image Source: AMD

With Zen 2, I’m expecting higher IPC and clock speeds. Furthermore, the requirement for a high-speed memory in Ryzen Processors (for better performance), would be reduced. If the leaks are true, Zen 2 will also have more cores but will be priced the same as the existing Ryzen 2000 series.

AMD may or may not surpass Intel in Single-Threaded performance but it will definitely come close to a point that Zen 2 would become a great choice for Gamers as well. So my advice for AMD is to simply stick with their schedule and keep launching products at competitive prices. AMD has a great opportunity to grab a decent market share from Intel in the upcoming two years.

Now let’s talk about Intel. They first showcased their new CPU Core Roadmap at Intel’s Architecture Day on December 11th, 2018. That day, Intel showcased many different technologies such as 3D chip-stacking.

Intel CPU Core Roadmap

Image Source: Intel

The new Sunny Cove microarchitecture is expected to bring higher throughputs and better scalability. It will be built on Intel’s 10nm Process which is 2.7 times denser than their 14nm process.

My advice for Intel is that they really need to deliver it this time or else AMD would totally dominate 2019. Intel also needs to bring back the Hyper-Threading Technology for their Core i5 & i7 Series.

Hopefully, Intel will release their 10th Generation Ice Lake Processors by the end of 2019.

If everything goes well for Intel and considering that their EUVL based 7nm Process is on track, they could also possibly launch Golden Cove in 2021 with 7nm Technology.

The roadmaps of both Intel & AMD seem exciting. I cannot wait to see how powerful the processors might get by 2021 if both these companies deliver as promised.

So, what are you more excited for? AMD Ryzen’s 3rd Generation (Matisse) or Intel’s 10th Generation (Icelake)?

Let me know in the comments below.

As for me, I’m more excited for Ryzen 3000 Series as I’ll build my next workstation PC with the Ryzen 7 3700X. But I do hope Intel begins the mass production of 10nm in 2019 and makes the competition stiff.

Good competition between brands results in great products but when we have a monopoly, brands end up refining their ‘Skylake’ architecture thrice.

    The End of Moore’s Law & Future

With the delay on Intel’s 10nm, it was clear that the end of Moore’s law is nearing. But rather than calling it an end, we should better call it a “slow down”. The number of transistors is still increasing every two years, but not at the same rate.

I believe that we can shrink the transistor size for another 5 to 10 years before Quantum Tunneling comes into play. Here’s a video from Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell that explains Quantum Tunneling and Quantum Computing.

 

But for the next few years, we still have 5nm & 3nm Nodes from TSMC & GlobalFoundries to watch out for. Also, Intel’s upcoming 7nm Process will have higher transistor density than TSMC’s 5nm.

Guess what? TSMC’s 5nm is not too many years away. In fact, TSMC will begin the initial production in the 2nd half of 2019. Both the TSMC’s 5nm and Intel’s 7nm will use Extreme ultraviolet lithography. You can follow this article to learn more about Intel’s 7nm plans.

Here are some estimates from SemiWiki about the upcoming 7nm, 5nm, and 3nm nodes.

So, what happens when Moore’s Law is dead?

We will have to switch to alternative elements or wait for some kind of technological breakthrough. You can learn more about future technologies in the following video by Seeker.

 

Here’s an article on Digital Trends about how performance will continue to improve even after the end of Moore’s Law.

    References




2 thoughts on “7nm vs 10nm vs 14nm: Fabrication Technology Explained”

    • The transistor densities have been obtained from various different sources. In the References, I’ve mentioned Semi Wiki from where most of the transistor densities have been obtained. The others are taken from the official websites and presentations of Intel, TSMC, and Samsung. Many of these values are calculated on the basis of how dense a company is calling a node while comparing to a previous node. For example, on this page, TSMC says that their 7nm FinFET node is 1.6 times denser than their 10nm FinFET Node.

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