Intel and 10 nm (Premium)

Intel has always had a tortured relationship with mobile computing. But its inability to make its chipsets more efficient is embarrassing and troubling.

As part of its otherwise stellar earnings announcement this past week, Intel admitted that it was delaying its move to a more efficient and mobile-friendly 10 nm manufacturing process to 2019. This isn't the first delay, either. Originally announced as a 2015 product, Intel's 10 nm CPUs, now codenamed Cannon Lake, have been delayed multiple times.

Intel's inability to reach 10 nm manufacturing in volume---the CPU giant inexplicably claims it is now shipping 10 nm chips in "low volume" without explaining to whom or for what purpose---has been an ongoing embarrassment for the firm. And it has done the equivalent of hand-waving to distract us from this fact by squeezing ever more performance---and, more important, more efficiency---out its current 14 nm process.

Last year's release of the quad-core U-series chips, which hit at the mainstream part of the market, is the latest example. And the effort has paid off: Intel is providing a meaningful performance boost, essentially for free, and it is doing so without impacting battery life when compared to previous-generation dual-core chips. It's a win-win, right?

Not exactly. The quad-core U-series CPUs are indeed a win for the shrinking audience of PC buyers who are upgrading here in 2018, for sure. But the current mass market for personal computing devices has moved past the PC to smartphones and tablets. And that much bigger market---smartphones alone now outsell PCs by a factor of at least 6 each year---is driven by more efficient CPUs and chipsets based on ARM.

Those ARM chipsets have a few meaningful advantages over Intel's offerings. One is architectural: Rather than provide multiple physical and virtual cores, each with the exact same characteristics, ARM chipsets are optimized for thin, light, and tiny mobile devices. They have some combination of performance efficiency cores which let devices built on this platform run at full speed while used interactively. But they operate more efficiently while sleeping or unused, too, and provide dramatic battery life and standby advantages over Intel designs.

More to the point, the ARM world has already moved to the smaller and more efficient 10 nm manufacturing process that still eludes Intel. Qualcomm, the biggest maker of ARM chipsets, introduced its first 10 nm chipset, the Snapdragon 835, in 2016. It went on to be a best-seller, and was used in virtually every handset flagship (besides Apple's) over the subsequent year. And some ARM makers are now working on 7- and 8 nm processes.

The ongoing improvements to Intel's 14 nm chips are certainly laudable. But one gets the feeling that this effort has been forced on the company, and that it would have begun offering even more efficient 10 nm chips for portable PCs by now if it could do so.

This failing also raises the issue o...

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