Technology Processors: a battle between Intel, Apple, AMD and Qualcomm at the nanometer scale

Processors: a battle between Intel, Apple, AMD and Qualcomm at the nanometer scale

It is an industrial war on the scale of the infinitely small, of the order of a few nanometers. Let us specify at the outset the scale of this unit of measurement. A nanometer is equivalent to a billionth of a meter. Putting it another way, there are a million nanometers in a single millimeter. Very concretely, our nails grow by a nanometer … every second! Look at your nails: can’t you see them growing, from one second to the next? It makes sense because we are at the scale of certain atoms.

One of the challenges for processor manufacturers is to engrave ever more finely and, in this case, even finer than what is best done today, namely 5 nanometers. Why burn always smaller? The smaller you burn, the more transistors you can fit, and therefore the more power you get; the more the distances are reduced; the less energy is lost.

At the end of the chain, a finer engraving of the processors results in faster PCs and Macs that allow you to work longer without recharging them (in the case of laptops). The ambitious but realistic goal now is to achieve an engraving in 3 nanometers in 2023.

A visionary predicted this exponential acceleration in 1965. It is Gordon Moore. Moore’s Law is him. Over 55 years ago, the Intel co-founder predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit of the same size would double every 18 months. His prediction came true beyond his expectations, but today the ongoing revolution is elsewhere. We are indeed witnessing a change of epoch. And Intel, which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the very first processor, the 4004, is experiencing it right now.

“The best days are yet to come.”

Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel

at The Oregonian

Its new CEO, Pat Gelsinger, admitted in mid-January that he had been overtaken by a new competitor: and this competitor is Apple, whose first processors for Mac – called M1 – surprised by their power and their relatively revolutionary design. . This puts the memory at the center, available to all the components with the consequence, a spectacular gain in power.

Stung, the boss of Intel launched this challenge to his teams by referring to Apple without naming the creator of the iPod and iPhone: “We need to bring better products to the PC ecosystem than anything that comes from a business focused on leisure in Cupertino, Pat Gelsinger said. We have to get as good as this in the future. “

These chips designed by the team of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, have also started to replace the processors provided by Intel in Macs for 15 years: quite a symbol. But Intel certainly hasn’t said its last word. Her new boss says “the best days are yet to come”. Allusion, in particular, to the 12th generation of Intel processors, nicknamed Alder Lake, whose very first tests look promising and which are expected, in the trade, at the beginning of 2022. Never, the competition – of which AMD is also a part – n ‘ was nonetheless also strong for the forerunner of processor manufacturers. Strong and numerous.

In addition to AMD, which targets the same market, in addition to Apple – an indirect competitor but whose processors attract attention and arouse envy – we must add Qualcomm. The group, based in San Diego, specializes in modems, these components that allow connection to the mobile network, today in 4G or 5G.

But at the start of the year, Qualcomm put almost $ 1.5 billion on the table to buy Nuvia, a company founded in 2019 by three Apple alumni. Particularity of the trio? The three of them worked on iPhone and iPad processors. Qualcomm’s ambition, with the Nuvia team, is no longer just to manufacture processors for smartphones but to invent the ultra-powerful core of the PCs of tomorrow, or more precisely of 2023. We come back to our 3 nanometers. Qualcomm’s first attempt was unsuccessful. This time, the outsider seems to have the means for his ambitions.

Another sign of the times: Qualcomm is not in pursuit of Intel but of Apple which, suddenly, has become the competitor to catch up. A very particular competitor because the Mac manufacturer will probably never sell its in-house processors to PC manufacturers: Toshiba, Huawei, HP or Dell. And if it’s no longer Intel, why wouldn’t it be Qualcomm? Their first PC processor is announced for 9 months.

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