ARM and TSMC tape out test chip on 16-nm FinFET process

One way Intel hopes to capture more share of the market for mobile chips is by taking advange of its more advanced manufacturing capabilities. The new Atom SoCs announced today, for instance, are made on a 22-nm process with a 3D or "tri-gate" transistor structure. This structure allows the chip to operate more effectively at lower voltage levels, reducing power consumption and extending system battery life compared to chips based on traditional planar transistors.

The rest of the semiconductor industry has trailed behind Intel in the move to 3D transistors, more broadly known as FinFETs. Without this new structure, the move to process geometries below 28 nm has been slow, in part because going smaller with planar transistors doesn't seem to pay many dividends in terms of power efficiency or costs.

Fortunately, it appears the leading chip foundry, TSMC, is making good progress toward its own implementation of FinFETs on a 16-nm process. Today, TSMC and ARM revealed that they taped out a fairly complex test chip on TSMC's 16-nm FinFET process late last year. The chip includes dual Cortex-A57 and quad Cortex-A53 CPU cores in an asymmetrical big.LITTLE configuration similar to what a final, consumer-oriented SoC might use. This development could blaze the trail for a host of SoCs designs from customers of ARM and TSMC.

The ARM announcement claims TSMC's 16-nm FinFET process has dramatic benefits: "designs could gain >40% faster speed at the same total power, or alternatively reduce >55% in total power at the same speed over 28HPM." Those claims are similar to what Intel has said its 22-nm tri-gate process offers compared to its own 32-nm planar tech. TSMC expects to have "more than 20 customer tape outs" on its 16-nm FinFET process in 2014.

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