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September 17, 1998

WILL INTEL LAG BEHIND IN RACE FOR NEW CHIP PROCESSES?

By CBR Staff Writer

Intel Corp is working on two sets of 0.18 micron logic processes, one for its mainstream chips and one for its specialized core logic, graphics and embedded processors, it emerged this week at the Intel Developers Forum. The move is a change from Intel’s previous policy of developing its leading-edge process technology for the flagship Pentium lines and later migrating the new process to its other chips. It also indicates that Intel is taking its peripheral chip business more seriously, perhaps in response to the huge interest in system-on-a-chip technology which has emerged over the past year. Such chips need to have small die sizes, and have different requirements from Intel’s Pentium line. Fast switching must be supported in CPUs, while thinner layers of metalization are more important for core logic chips. Market pressures mean Intel can no longer delay the introduction of newer processes for its peripheral chips, and needs to customize the process to wring out the maximum performance. Meanwhile, the Microprocessor Report’s latest editorial has been highlighting some of the recent advances in process technology, now being talked about by the major chip vendors. IBM’s Lonestar chip, using copper metal traces instead of aluminum, is the first chip to use new materials in volume production since tungsten appeared in the late 1980s, it says. But, as 0.18 micron processes emerge, more are set to appear, with copper, silicon-on-insulator, low-k dielectrics and high-k gate oxides all in the pipeline. These, along with new lithography techniques and the conversion to 300mm wafers, will be needed to keep the chip vendors on track with Moore’s Law while remaining competitive. Intel and the Asian chip manufacturers appear to be lagging behind on the development of new techniques, says the Report, partly because the transition period can be so risky for high-volume products. As we have reported here, Intel has mostly dismissed talk about new materials and processes from its competitors as marketing speak (CI No 3,467). But if Intel doesn’t make the move, it may start falling behind its competitors in the race for performance.

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