Intel’s going straight to 7nm for its desktop CPUs, ditching 10nm for PC gaming

Intel has reportedly taken the decision to ditch the 10nm production process for its desktop CPUs and is instead set to jump straight from the 14nm+++ lineup into 7nm desktop processors. Given all the problems it’s had with chip development and production yields doesn’t seems like a bad move… except that it’s not going to happen for at least two years.

That would mean, as some previous rumours have suggested, that Intel’s desktop line is going to be stuck to the same 14nm lithography it’s been using since Broadwell introduced us to it way back in 2014. The Rocket Lake-S processors have long been suggested as another 14nm CPU launching in the second quarter of 2021, with the upcoming Comet Lake-S chips set to fill the time between then and now.

This is, of course a heavily salted rumour, coming as it does from so-called ‘insiders,’ so the veracity of the claims do have to be treated with a certain level of caution. It does, however, tally squarely with the existing expectations about Intel’s future desktop game.

The claims come from “Insiderkreisen” speaking to Andreas Schilling at HardwareLuxx, who he notes have proven to be accurate on CPU topics multiple times in the past. The points being that, because Intel is struggling to hit the required clock speeds for a 10nm desktop chip to be able to surpass the previous performance of its 14nm silicon, it’s had to nix any desktop development of 10nm cores.

Intel process node roadmap

Instead Intel will be using Comet Lake-S and Rocket Lake-S ranges – both still based on the existing Skylake CPU architecture – to fill the gap until Intel hits the 7nm ground running with Meteor Lake in 2022. Three years after AMD has hit volume release of its own 7nm CPUs. Ouch.

By then we might have already had a year of 5nm AMD Ryzen chips based on the Zen 4 microarchitecture, which means Intel will still potentially have a lot of catching up to do to its CPU rivals.

That means, like Ice Lake, there’s going to be no desktop equivalent of the Tiger Lake mobile processors. Which is a real shame because it means the Sunny Cove core design isn’t going to make it into our desktop gaming rigs, and we won’t get the at least 15% IPC increase it’s delivered to its laptop chips.

It’s not clear why the Sunny Cove design can’t be back-ported onto the 14nm lithography; it might be that the new architecture needs the extra die-space afforded by the smaller production process, or the reduced power requirements. But for now it certainly looks like the desktop market for Intel CPUs is going to remain relatively stagnant in terms of actual chip design for another few years at least.

Intel Core roadmap

We don’t know which of the Coves the 7nm Meteor Lake architecture might sport, but given that we’re looking around three years in the future the advanced Golden Cove design, with its boosted AI and single threaded performance boosts, might not be out of the question.

The source puts some of the blame for the 10nm struggles at the feet of a new technique called Contact Over Active Gate (COAG). The technique has reportedly by tricky and was the main stumbling block behind the now-defunct Cannon Lake CPUs. With low production clock speeds and the problems with new techniques it’s no surprise that Intel might want to skip 10nm on the desktop and tread water until 2022.

After all, it’s not like the current lineup of 14nm processors is actually struggling in terms of performance. For all that we laud AMD for nailing its 7nm CPU, and for offering a vast number of cores via its chiplet design, Intel’s aging Skylake architecture is still capable of hitting high clock speeds on a process that’s nominally twice the scale, and producing IPC metrics still often above AMD’s finest.

We’ve reached out to Intel with reference to the claims that its desktop division will go straight to 7nm, will not pass go, will not collect $200, or win first price in a beauty contest. We’ll update as soon as we hear anything back from Intel itself.

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