The process size of a System-on-Chip, SoC, is important for several reasons. One is that the smaller the manufacturing process, which is measured in nanometers, the smaller the physical chip. The smaller the chip, the less space it occupies on the motherboard and the more space remaining for the other system components. This can result in smaller, thinner devices or (as many customers would like) a larger battery to be fitted inside the chassis. The second reason is that a physically smaller processor chip means the electrons have a shorter distance to travel between internal components and this results in an increase in processor performance. This means that for a given clock speed and processor architecture, the SoC should be able to process instructions quicker and this means a more responsive device. Or the manufacturer can achieve the same performance with a reduced clock speed, which can result in reduced power consumption and so longer battery life. The third reason is that a smaller distance between components requires a lower voltage in order to operate, with power (and heat) proportional to the square of the voltage applied: a small reduction in voltage can cause a relatively large reduction in power consumption.
Earlier in the year, Samsung released the Exynos 7420 processor constructed on a 14nm process, leapfrogging the 20nm process and resulting in lower power and heat production, which are of critical importance to mobile devices. However, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) seemingly have plans to leapfrog the 14nm process and jump straight to the 10nm process, skipping a generation and jumping in front of Samsung. All being equal, the jump from 14nm to 10nm could result in a 20% improvement in clock speeds and a 40% reduction in power and heat consumption. How close are TSMC? They are around a year closer than Samsung’s stated plans and are planning risk trial productions of 10nm processors later in the year. TSMC’s intention is to prepare their processor foundry to accept big orders from businesses such as Qualcomm or Apple for new generation 10nm chips as soon as early in the New Year. Samsung’s plans to roll out 10nm technology still appears to be positioned for the next of next year, but back in February the company showcased pre-production processors built on the 10nm process. This demonstration appeared to be designed to cause those companies who may be preparing to give TSMC to pause and reconsider Samsung.
The System-on-Chip arms race should ultimately be good news for customers, because with every generation newer, processors become better able to manage the blend of power, battery life and performance that we demand from our devices. The next twelve months could prove to be very interesting as Qualcomm introduces a new custom application processor core and new, even smaller designs are introduced into smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks.