TSMC, ARM team up on 64-bit chips with non-planar transistors

— 5:13 PM on July 24, 2012

Unlike Intel, vendors of ARM-based SoCs can't yet reap the benefits of 64-bit addressing and "3D" transistors. But soon, they will. Oh, yes. TSMC and ARM say they've joined forces in a new, multi-year partnership, which will involve the manufacture of 64-bit ARM processors on sub-20-nm fab processes with fancy new FinFET transistors.

Now, ARM isn't a direct client of TSMC's. Rather, ARM develops intellectual property, which system-on-a-chip makers like TI, Qualcomm, and Nvidia subsequently license and integrate into their SoC designs. Those companies then enlist the services of independent foundries like TSMC for manufacturing.

The freshly announced ARM-TSMC partnership is all about facilitating that process, so that ARM's newest CPU architecture can be more easily built into real products. Or, in the words of the two companies:

The collaboration will enable sharing of technical information and feedback between the two companies, enhancing the development of ARM IP and TSMC process technology. ARM will leverage process information to optimize the power, performance and area (PPA) of the overall solution to reduce risk and encourage early adoption. TSMC will use the latest ARM processors and technology to benchmark and tune advanced FinFET process technologies. The combination of TSMC FinFET technology and ARMv8 architecture provides the fabless industry with solutions for continued innovation across diverse market segments. The collaboration will result in improved silicon process, physical IP and processor technology that together will enable new system-on-chip (SoC) innovation and shorten time-to-market.

FinFETs are a type of non-planar transistor similar to Intel's tri-gate transistors. (FET stands for field-effect transistor, and FinFETs get their name from the fin-like structure of the conducting channel.) ARMv8, meanwhile, is the 64-bit successor to the ARMv7 architecture. The Cortex-A9 core found inside Nvidia's Tegra 3, Apple's A5, and a number of other, high-profile SoCs is based on the 32-bit ARMv7 architecture.

According to EE Times, this partnership won't bear fruit until the second half of 2015. That's when the site says TSMC will ramp its 16-nm CMOS process. Of course, it's worth stressing that Intel already offers 64-bit chips with 3D transistors today—the Ivy Bridge family. I'm sure it won't be long before we see some low-power Atom SoCs built using the same 22-nm tri-gate transistors, too.

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