AMD, Nvidia reportedly get tripped up on process shrinks

They can design the chip, but can their fabs actually make them?

In the fierce battle between CPU and GPU vendors, it's not just about speeds and feeds but also about process shrinks. Every time they can shrink the processor die they reduce heat leakage and make slight performance gains, so process shrinks are just as vital as a new architecture.

Intel, which plows billions into fabs every year, is the undisputed leader of this market. There's a reason it's able to shrink its process technology every two years. Its competitors AMD and Nvidia don't make their own chips, and that may prove an Achilles Heel.

Both Nvidia and AMD have had their move to 16nm and 20nm designs, respectively, hampered by the limited capacity of both nodes at manufacturer TSMC, according to the enthusiast site WCCFTech.com.

While AMD's CPUs are produced by GlobalFoundaries, its former fabrication plants that the company spun off as a stand-alone business, its GPUs are made at TSMC, as are Nvidia's chips. The problem is that TSMC only has so much capacity and Apple and Samsung have sucked up all that capacity.

Nvidia's newest chips, found in the GTX 980 and 970 cards, were made using the 28nm process instead of the 20nm Nvidia wanted. So the company decided to skip 20nm and go straight to 16nm for future designs. The problem there is 16nm is very, very new, and new process technologies mean some shakeout time.

AMD wanted to drop from 28nm to 20nm for its new GPUs but ran into the same capacity issue. This has impacted the delivery of AMD's 20nm R9 300 series graphics cards. They were supposed to show between February and March of this year but now they are at least two months behind and it's not AMD's fault.

And last November, at its financial analyst meeting, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Mark Papermaster said there would be 20nm and 28nm products in 2015 but no 14nm or 16nm products until 2016.

All the capacity right now is going to Apple and Samsung. Apple's forthcoming A9 chip, which is being made by TSMC, is reportedly a 16nm design. And Samsung, which makes a whole lot of chips for itself and others, is also working on 14nm processors for this year. Samsung does have its own fabs but outsources a lot to TSMC.

With 14nm/16nm being so new and only so much capacity available, AMD and Nvidia are left out in the cold. They also have nowhere else to go. The only other manufacturer with 14nm capacity is Intel and there's no way Intel will sell them some capacity.

It's an unfortunate turn of events, because we are not getting cutting edge GPU technology from the two top vendors through no fault of their own. They can design for a process node, but if TSMC can't make enough chips, then the designs are pointless. It presents consumers with a buy-or-wait scenario where they either buy now or wait an unknown period to get a potentially better product.

Then again, we've been going through that for decades, haven't we?

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