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Intel’s 10nm Chips Are Finally Here — Amid Some Criticism

August 08, 2019 by Luke James

Early coverage of Intel's first processors made in its delayed 10nm node have been mixed, with many saying that the improvements are modest. Have they been worth the wait?

Smaller transistors are one of the ways that vendors can use to speed up their chips, and Intel has been trying for several years to make the leap from 14nm to 10nm whereas other manufacturers such as TSMC and Samsung already have. 

Finally, however, Intel has been getting ready to release its first 10nm processers, codenamed Ice Lake, with promises of higher speeds and more power efficiency which could pave the way for the next generation of ultra-powerful, long-lasting computer hardware. For now, this is limited to laptops because Intel has not yet announced any desktop components based on Ice Lake chip architecture. 


10nm Ice Lake Chips: Years in the Making

Achieving 10nm has been a core goal of Intel for several years now. With Ice Lake laptops available soon and Ice Lake CPUs, first announced at CES 2019, now shipping to vendors, Intel has finally done it. 

The company has gone on record to say that Ice Lake's CPU will deliver an 18% improvement in instructions per clock, however, the chips will run at lower clock frequencies than Intel's current line of 14nm chips. 

The capabilities of Ice Lake include support for Wi-Fi 6 and Thunderbolt 3 alongside 64 GPU execution engines operating at 28W. That is more than twice the amount found on current chips. 


Product image of Intel's Core i7 processors. Image courtesy of Intel Newsroom.


Reviews have been mixed, however, with PCMag and Anandtech both spoke highly of the GPU boost but also spoke critically about Ice Lake's other benchmarks.


The IPC (Instructions Per Cycle) Trade-Off

These criticisms do not do Ice Lake any justice. 

Overall, the chips have improved massively. Graphics performance has improved substantially, so did IPC despite Intel having to trade-off part of Ice Lake's IPC improvements for improved (lower) power consumption. Altogether, Ice Lake represents a substantial improvement across the board. 

Whether this trade-off was deliberate or not is for Intel to know, though. Perhaps their 10nm process is not yet good enough to get higher yields when increasing clock speed. Until their 10nm process is optimized, as was the case with their 14nm process, Intel has taken a wise step back. 


Better Lake Than Never

Although it appeared as though Intel were "struggling" to deliver their 10nm chips, something the company was mocked for with the release of "7nm" chips by TSMC and Samsung, the situation was not nearly as bad as many were led to believe. 

The reason why Intel appeared to be struggling is because Intel, the world's premier and foremost processor manufacturer, is honest. In contrast, other manufacturers' "7nm" chips are actually closer to 10nm than 7nm, and chip manufacturers have faced criticism for using node names as more of a marketing tactic than a comparable metric that truly reflects the chips' power. 

Yes, 10nm is a brand-new manufacturing process for Intel. Yes, 10nm has been delayed by Intel since 2016. Yes, other chip manufacturers started using it first. 

However, given that nobody aside from Intel insiders knows the exact reasons why Intel had little early success with its 10nm chips, speculation should be avoided—take Ice Lake at face value and decide for yourself whether it stacks up to the competition.  

Rather than rushing to deliver 10nm chips despite low yields during the manufacturing process, Intel opted to instead wait and deliver a robust end-product. Whilst Ice Lake has faced some criticism, there is no doubting the significant improvements it brings and the move from 14nm to 10nm is a major achievement for Intel. 

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