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You won't buy IBM's 7nm chip, but it's a big deal for computing

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While Intel is finally getting its 14-nanometer sized chips out to the public, IBM today announced an even more impressive silicon breakthrough: The production of the first working 7nm chip. It's particularly impressive since it took years for chip makers like Intel to move from 22nm chips to 14nm, which offer better power efficiency and faster overall speeds thanks to their denser manufacturing. IBM's 7nm chip, produced together with partners including GlobalFoundries (which is taking over IBM's semiconductor business) and Samsung, will offer similar benefits, but the road to get there was vastly more complex than 14nm chips. IBM says it's using silicon germanium in electricity-conducting channels on the chip, as well as a new lithography method, dubbed Extreme Ultraviolet, to print finer circuits (which are around 10,000 times thinner than human hair). Perhaps most intriguingly it also keeps Moore's Law, the notion that computing power will double roughly every 18 months, alive for the next few years.

"The implications of our achievement are huge for the computer industry," wrote Mukesh Khare, IBM's VP of semiconductor technology research. "By making the chips inside computers more powerful and more efficient, IBM and our partners will be able to produce the next generations of servers and storage systems for cloud computing, big data analytics and cognitive computing."

Basically, the move towards 7nm is less about making desktop rigs faster, and more about making computing more efficient for laptops, mobile devices and other platforms. That should lead to huge leaps in battery life, even cheaper server time and leaps we can't even imagine yet. It'll likely be a while until we see 7nm chips in typical products, but IBM and its partners have proved one way to make them real. Things are even cloudier looking beyond 7nm: Khare says "there's no clear path to extend the life of the silicon semiconductor further into the future," and reaching the 5nm milestone will be even more difficult.

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