Samsung will bring a breakthrough processor technology to market in 2021. It's a fundamental reworking of the most basic electronic elements that'll speed performance 35% while cutting power use 50%.
The technology, called gate all around, or GAA, refashions the transistors at the heart of chips to make them smaller and faster, Samsung said Tuesday at its Samsung Foundry Forum event. When the chips arrive in 2021, they'll be a significant step in Samsung's competition with rivals Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) to rev up a chip industry that's struggled in recent years to overcome the engineering challenges of extreme miniaturization.
Samsung's strong materials research program is paying off, said Handel Jones, chief executive of consulting firm International Business Strategies.
"Samsung is ahead of TSMC in GAA by probably 12 months," he said. "Intel is probably two to three years behind Samsung."
Samsung's advance will extend the progress charted by Moore's Law, ensuring our phones, watches, cars and homes can get a bit smarter. The steady improvements once predicted by Moore's Law have faltered, and progress has been tarnished by high prices for the fastest chips, but at least for the next few years, you can expect better graphics, smarter AI, and other computing improvements.
"Gate all around will mark a new era of our foundry business," said Ryan Lee, the foundry business vice president of marketing at the event in Santa Clara, California -- the heart of Silicon Valley that also happens to be Intel's home.
What's a gate-all-around transistor?
For decades, the fundamental processor building block has been the transistor, and shrinking it has been key to chip progress. Transistors can be switched on and off, so that electrical current flows or doesn't -- a change of state that controls how chips process data and make decisions.
In transistors, a structure called a gate controls whether current flows across a channel. In early designs, the gate was perched atop the channel, but newer designs raise the channel into fins with the gate draped across. Gate all around goes a step further, wrapping the channel completely with the gate material -- a 3D structure that's more complicated to manufacture than the flat designs of yore.
Some envision GAA transistor channels to be tiny cylinders called nanowires, but Samsung's design uses flatter channels called nanosheets.
The first 3nm chips -- aimed for smartphones and other mobile devices -- will be tested in 2020, with volume manufacturing in 2021. A further refinement for higher-performance chips, like graphics processors and AI chips packed into data centers -- should arrive in volume in 2022, Lee said.
Intel and TSMC didn't immediately comment for this story.
3 nanometers and beyond
There are many dimensions of processor progress, but shrinking the size of electronic circuitry elements is a key one. Samsung-built chips today use features 7 nanometers across -- 7 billionths of meter. For comparison, a strand of DNA is only about 2 nanometers across. Samsung is refining its 7nm process with 6nm, 5nm and 4nm variants, but GAA will let Samsung shrink circuitry down to 3nm, Lee said.
But that's not all.
GAA improvements will lead to 2nm manufacturing, Lee forecast. After that will be future technology at 1nm and then, he expects, a size even smaller.
"I'm sure there will be new technology beyond 1nm," Lee said. "I'm not sure what kind of structure, but it will emerge."
That's a bold expectation, though to be fair chipmakers have been worried about miniaturization roadblocks for decades. Perhaps we'll have to move to picometers -- trillionths of a meter -- as we once moved chip naming conventions from 0.13 micrometers to 130 nanometers.
, though prototypes can be made now. The company released early production tools now so customers can get started designing and adapting chips for 3nm, too.
3nm chips more expensive
Samsung has been making chips for years, but in 2017 it split off its Samsung Foundry division into a separate business in an effort to attract customers besides groups like Samsung Electronics, which develops the Exynos chips used in some Samsung phones.
As a result, other companies rely on Samsung's prowess -- like Qualcomm, which relies on Samsung to build its new higher-end Snapdragon 730 and 730G smartphone chips -- and the consumers who buy their products.
In the glory days of processor manufacturing, new generations of technology would bring chips that were smaller and faster without increasing power consumption. Nowadays, it's hard to get all three benefits. And even when we do -- as Samsung promises with 3nm -- customers still might hesitate, because it's expensive.
Just as its upcoming 5nm chips will be somewhat more expensive than the current 7nm chips, the 3nm chips will be "a little" more costly than predecessors when priced per transistor. Those costs gradually decline, though, Lee said.
Originally published May 14, 3 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:39 p.m. PT: Adds further details about GAA chips.