ARM chases Intel on 3D transistors with TSMC deal

TSMC will make chips with 3D transistors based on ARM processor designs

ARM is catching up with Intel on 3D transistors, announcing a new partnership with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing to manufacture 64-bit chips that are faster and more power-efficient than current chips in which transistors are organized horizontally.

The agreement calls for TSMC to implement the 3D transistors in chips based on ARM's ARMv8 64-bit architecture in the 20-nanometer manufacturing process and beyond. ARM licenses processor designs to fabless companies such as Qualcomm and Nvidia, which get the chips made by contract manufacturers like TSMC.

Currently, transistors are generally organized horizontally, but a new manufacturing technology enables them to be stacked vertically. The technology, which is referred to as FinFET, has been researched for more than a decade and is considered an important way to fit more transistors onboard as chips get smaller.

Late last year, Intel started manufacturing chips with 3D transistors and claimed big performance and power-efficiency gains. ARM is hoping for the same, and said in a statement that TSMC's 3D transistor process promises "impressive speed and power improvements as well as leakage reduction."

ARM dominates the smartphone and tablet markets, and its latest Cortex-A9 processor design is used in many tablets such as Google's Nexus 7 and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2. Chips with ARM processor designs are already considered power-efficient, and the addition of 3D transistors could improve the battery life of tablets and smartphones.

ARMv8 adds 64-bit addressing, which is an improvement over the current ARMv7-A architecture, which is capable of up to 32-bit addressing. ARM will be in direct competition with Intel and its 64-bit Xeon processors with ARMv8.

OSes such as Windows and Mac OS are 64-bit, and the new chips could allow computers to address larger amounts of storage and memory, which is beneficial for data-intensive applications. ARM is first targeting the smartphone and server markets with the ARMv8 architecture, and is expected to announce the first processors based on the 64-bit instruction set later this year.

Companies licensing ARM processor designs include Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments. TSMC has started making chips using the 28-nm process, and some smartphones with Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 chips are made in TSMC's facilities. TSMC has however had trouble ramping to the 28-nm process from the previous 40-nm process, which has caused chip supply issues for Qualcomm.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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