Samsung could be manufacturing the Intel Xe graphics card at 5nm in 2020

Intel may not have the manufacturing capacity to effectively make its own graphics card

Intel Xe graphics card

Whatever Raja Koduri does right now makes news. The ex-AMD graphics boss made a huge splash in the GPU waters by jumping ship from team Radeon to head up Intel’s burgeoning GPU design team, and now he’s made the move over to Samsung. Okay, it’s just for a visit this time, but his appearance at a Samsung chip manufacturing plant in South Korea has sparked rumours that Intel might be considering contracting its semiconductor rival to manufacture its Intel Xe graphics cards.

That potential partnership might sound bizarre, especially given that Intel and Samsung have been fighting it out to claim the title of biggest chip manufacturer in the world. Last year Samsung was the first company to knock Intel off the top spot since 1992, but it’s widely expected that, due to a decline of the memory market, Intel will retake its throne this year.

So, why would it give over a large chunk of its new manufacturing to a rival in order to get its first discrete graphics cards out of the door in 2020? One word. Capacity.

The rumour has spilled from a Twitter post Raja dropped on Tuesday morning, with a picture of him saying ‘hello’ outside a Samsung fab in Korea. It was picked up by Techpowerup, though the contract rumour has also been spilling around the fringes of Reddit.

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Raja’s visit came around the same time Samsung announced its readiness for 5nm EUV production, and there has been the suggestion that Intel is to be one of the customers who has ordered sampling on the 5nm node.

In terms of getting a range of discrete GPUs out of the door next year – in a variety of segments from datacenter, though gaming, and down to integrated – Intel passim teaches us that it might not have the manufacturing capacity to do that as well as ramp up its volume production of 10nm processors at the same time.

Intel has been struggling to get to the mass production mark for its 10nm node, and suffered hugely from having both its motherboard and chipset manufacturing on the 14nm process for such a long time. This led to extreme silicon shortages over the last year or so, making us question whether it really would have the manufacturing capability to take on this whole new sphere of chip production in 2020.

Intel Xe graphics roadmap

And considering the transistor counts of modern discrete GPUs – the RTX 2080 Ti has 18.6bn inside it – Intel will want to get on as small a process node as it can for its Intel Xe GPUs. But it will also want to manufacture on an affordable node too, and its 10nm process doesn’t look like it’s at that point yet. So, if Intel wants to make a GPU under the 14nm transistor scale, it’s going to have to look outside of its own fabs… and picking Samsung makes perfect sense.

It’s already working through EUV production on 7nm, 6nm, and 5nm, which means fewer layers of masking in the manufacturing process and that simplification could end up making it more affordable. Couple that with the fact that its three new nodes are more or less cross-compatible, meaning that a chip designed for 7nm EUV can be easily ported across to 5nm EUV as and when it’s needed.

Samsung Hwaesong fab and EUV site

Samsung will have its EUV production lines ready for mass production in 2020, and says it has had all the design IP out with prospective customers since the tail end of 2018. That would indicate it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility for it to manufacture either 7nm, or even 5nm, product for Intel next year.

Right now, however, that’s all just speculation. A simple ‘anyoung haseyo’ from Raja and the Intel Xe becomes a 5nm EUV product manufactured for Intel by Samsung. That’s maybe a lot to infer from a tweeted ‘hello’ though it does all make a lot of sense. Especially if we are to see a competitive Intel Xe discrete graphics card in twelve months time.