As silicon chips approach physical limits, it is becoming harder and more costly to deliver each new generation of technology. Yet the foundries that fabricate most of the world's chips seem to be announcing new nodes at a faster pace as they compete to make the chips that power the latest and greatest gadgets. This week, at an industry conference known as IEDM, the foundries announced details of the first 7nm process technology.

TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), the world's largest contract chipmaker, announced a 7nm process with the latest version of its 3D FinFET transistors for making future processors for smartphones and other mobile devices. To demonstrate the technology, TSMC produced a fully-function 256Mb SRAM test chip with the smallest reported memory-cell size (0.027 square microns). TSMC said the 7nm process will deliver either a 40 percent boost in performance or a 65 percent reduction in power at the transistor level compared to the current 16nm FinFET process. It is also less than half the size at 0.43x transistor density.

That all sounds impressive, but it's worth pointing out that TSMC is not comparing it to 10nm--which is widely expected to be a short-lived node--so the gains here are for two process nodes (or perhaps three if rumors of an interim "12nm process" are accurate). Nevertheless, the fabrication of a fully-functional chip with good performance and reliability at "high yield" (around 50 percent for the SRAM but much lower for logic) is a notable achievement, and TSMC emphasized that it is focused on helping customers get their 7nm chips to market as quickly as possible...

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