Intel launches and retires new products on a regular cadence, but it doesn’t typically resurrect CPUs once it’s made the decision to send them up to the big bit bucket in the sky. Intel recently announced that the Pentium G3420, a 22nm, Haswell-era CPU would return to active manufacturing less than two weeks after Intel announced it would be retiring the tiny core.
You can see the Product Change Notification from Intel below.
This is yet another symptom of the processor shortage that Intel has been working through more generally. The reason I think it’s interesting to catalog the various changes Intel has made to its product lines as a result of the ongoing CPU shortage, which has now been running for over a year, to greater and smaller degrees, is that it shows how a manufacturer with long factory bring-up times can manage capacity between 22nm, 14nm, and 10nm. We’ve discussed the various reasons why Intel’s 10nm ramp could be squeezing its 14nm production, but we haven’t discussed the impact on Intel’s 22nm production at all.
Historically, Intel has deployed far fewer nodes than a foundry like TSMC, which still produces some chip volume on nodes that are now 20 years old. Outside of some very limited manufacturing that it may do for dedicated customers with long-term product guaranteed replacement cycles, Intel has three nodes in play: 22nm, 10nm, and 14nm. At this point, Intel is supposed to be mostly done with 22nm, but there have been previous signs that the company was tapping the node to relieve pressure on its 14nm products — last year, Intel launched a 22nm chipset, the H310C, to pair with low-end parts. In this context, reviving the 22nm G3420 (2C/2T, 3.2GHz, 53W TDP) is probably intended to allow Intel to further optimize overall production.
While we’ve talked about the moves Intel has made to optimize revenue, like focusing on shipping products in the high-end server and desktop market, it’s not just a question of maximizing profits. Intel’s decision to introduce a “KF” family of CPUs without a functional GPU was a sign of how far the firm is willing to go to maximize yield. The number of chips presumably rolling off its 14nm process without a functional GPU is presumably quite low to begin with, but when yield is tight enough, every CPU counts.
So why did Intel un-cancel the G3420? Most likely, because it found a way to slot that specific CPU into a product line in order to meet a need for a customer or group of customers. It could be an attempt to ensure low-end customers who can’t get allocation on 14nm chips still have some kind of Intel product option rather than being forced to turn to AMD. The fact that Intel is resurrecting this single 22nm CPU doesn’t tell us much about the overall state of its ongoing shortage, beyond the fact that the company is once again tapping its existing 22nm capacity in a small way to take some pressure off other products. In a way, it’s the smallness of these optimizations that makes them noteworthy. We seriously doubt Intel is selling scads of 22nm CPUs per month, and the company likely doesn’t expect to.
Ordinarily, the decision to EOL 22nm chips altogether would be business as usual and unworthy of a post. But foundries take time to spin up and down and they can’t be quickly converted to a new process node — and that obviously means it was worth more to Intel to keep an old 22nm core on the books than to take the CPU out of production and use the fab space for something else.
We agree with Computerbase.de, who broke this story, this is likely a stopgap measure for Intel. The company’s overall financial health is excellent; the firm reported a record level of Q3 2019 revenue in its last earnings report.
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