The spectre of PC CPU shortages is raising its head again as the holiday season approaches.
On Tuesday, Taiwan's Digitimes reported that Intel's (INTC) - Get Report supply of chips relying on its older, 14-nanometer (14nm), manufacturing process node is once more falling short of demand. It added that the shortages "may force many notebook vendors to postpone their new model launches to next year."
The report comes after Intel and various other firms signaled over the summer that the 14nm CPU shortages that began about a year ago were starting to ease. It also comes just a month after Intel rolled out 10th-generation Core notebook processors (codenamed Comet Lake) that rely on a 14nm process. Four of the chips are for Intel's U-series notebook processor family, which is aimed at mainstream notebooks and 2-in-1 systems, while four others are for Intel's ultra-low-power Y-series family.
Intel has also recently unveiled the first notebook processors to rely on its much-delayed 10nm manufacturing process node. These chips are also labeled as 10th-gen parts and rely on a microarchitecture known as Ice Lake; there are six U-series chips, along with 5 Y-series chips. There's no indication that Intel is seeing shortages for Ice Lake notebook processors.
Relative to Comet Lake and its 14nm predecessors, the Ice Lake chips will have an edge in terms of instructions processed per CPU clock cycle (IPC), and will also be more power-efficient and come with a more powerful integrated GPU. But their CPU clock speeds are often lower than those of comparable Comet Lake parts, and whereas Ice Lake chips have either two or four CPU cores, the most powerful Comet Lake chip packs six cores.
As a result, some performance-focused notebook buyers are likely to prefer Comet Lake for now...provided they can get their hands on a Comet Lake system.
Separately, AMD (AMD) - Get Report recently delayed the launch of its high-end Ryzen 9 3950X desktop CPU from September to November. Like the well-received mid-range and high-end desktop CPUs that AMD launched this summer, the 3950X relies on Taiwan Semiconductor's (TSM) - Get Report 7nm manufacturing process node (seen as competitive with Intel's 10nm node) and AMD's Zen 2 CPU core microarchitecture. It packs 16 cores and is set to retail for a hefty $749.
In a statement, AMD said it's currently focusing on "meeting the strong demand" for the 7nm desktop CPUs it has already launched, and noted that new chips for its Ryzen Threadripper CPU line (meant for workstations and enthusiast desktop systems) will also arrive in November. However, citing sources at motherboard makers, Digitimes reported that "unsatisfactory" CPU clock speeds have led to the 3950X delay.
Regardless of whether clock speeds are playing a role, it's hard to overlook the fact that the 3950X delay comes amid reports that TSMC, whose 7nm clients also include the likes of Apple (AAPL) - Get Report , Qualcomm (QCOM) - Get Report , Huawei and Broadcom (AVGO) - Get Report , is seeing lengthy lead times for 7nm orders. It's also hard to overlook the fact that the most powerful 7nm AMD desktop CPU currently on the market, the 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X, is sold out at many online retailers. On eBay, transactions for brand-new 3900X units often feature sale prices of around $700 -- far above the CPU's $499 list price. Amazon marketplace sellers are charging $799 or more for it.
The fact that the 3900X is being sold at such prices reflects well on its value proposition. But it also suggests that Intel isn't the only PC CPU supplier having trouble keeping up with demand.
Also: AMD recently launched its first 7nm Epyc server CPUs (codenamed Rome) to much applause from reviewers and Wall Street. With Rome CPUs priced between $450 and $6,950, and with AMD hoping to achieve a double-digit server CPU share by early-to-mid 2020, it wouldn't be surprising if the company prioritized server CPU sales relative to desktop CPU sales, if forced to choose.
Intel and AMD's shortages come at a time when PC demand has picked up, thanks in part to business PC upgrades that are taking place ahead of Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Report ending of Windows 7 support in January. Citing business PC demand and order pull-ins that happened amid tariff worries, research firm IDC estimates global PC shipments rose 4.7% annually in Q2, reversing Q1's 3% decline and Q4 2018's 3.7% decline.
With the PC industry entering its seasonally strongest part of the year, Intel's reported 14nm supply constraints and TSMC's reportedly stretched 7nm lead times, together with the demand pickup that the PC market in general has seen, raise the possibility that shortages could once more meaningfully impact Q4 sales.
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