TSMC signs up for Intel's Atom push

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TSMC will be the first foundry* to make Intel x86 processors. And rather than use Intel's manufacturing process, Intel is working on a port of the Atom core to an, as yet, unspecified TSMC process.

Anand Chandrashekar, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s ultra mobility group, confirmed the company will not pass on its manufacturing technology: “We are porting Atom, some of them, to TSMC’s process libraries using their libraries and their flows.”

As Atom was designed for the Intel 45nm high-k metal-gate process – and the number-one chipmaker described a variant for system-on-chip (SoC) designs at last year's IEDM – it seems likely that Intel will port the core to TSMC's own flavour of high-k, metal-gate. However, on the foundry's current schedule that will not be ready until next year as the first commercial process to sport that kind of gate will be the 28nm technology.

TSMC has run prototype wafers on a 32nm high-k process and was slated to talk about that at IEDM in December but switched gears on the day and reported its experiences on the 28nm version. Right now, TSMC is working with standard and low-power versions of a polysilicon-gate process. In principle, there is nothing stopping Intel from trying to port Atom to the existing 40nm TSMC process. But given how much Intel has claimed about the power advantage of high-k over polysilicon and that it is in control of the porting process, it seems unlikely.

Sean Maloney, executive vice president of sales at Intel, claimed at today's press conference that there is "a sense of urgency" at the two companies but also that they favour leading-edge processes.

Although TSMC will make Atom-based SoCs, Intel will still call the shots on who gets to use it. And Maloney was clear that the deal is there primarily to get access to markets that Intel would find difficult to enter on its own. The chipmaker will still make Atom-based SoCs for netbooks, consumer electronics and handhelds, he claimed.

“We will maintain full control of who we sell to,” Maloney said. “We have markets in our mind that we are going after.”

Maloney claimed work on products has started: "The very first products are currently in definition. But we are not talking about that today."

Insisting that the deal is not about securing additional capacity but attracting a wider range of customers to the Atom, Maloney said: “Intel is a manufacturing company. During the course of the past 16 years, when people questioned whether we should invest in manufacturing, the answer was yes. It is a central core competency.

“So, why port a core to TSMC? Our belief is that as we look at the next three or four years, [customers] will need to embed PC functionality into these devices,” Maloney added, indicating the growing market for portable and embedded electronics. “We also want to go after markets where we are absent.”

Assuming that it will take at least a year to get customer designs from the block diagram to physical design, TSMC is probably going to be in a position to start production on a high-k process when that happens. That points to consumer products being ready for the Christmas season of 2010.

* But not the first company to make x86 processors under licence to Intel. A bunch of people could make the old 8086s. AMD and Harris had access to the 80286. IBM was able to make everything up to and including the 80486 but only for use in its own computers, although it wound up making processors for Cyrix.

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The deal with TSMC is not the first time that Intel has tried to manoeuvre into the embedded space by signing up a company to make chips for customers to whom it cannot sell a standard product. However, it did... Read More