What is FinFET?

The transistor technology that powers your devices

Finfet design

Samsung/Flickr

The technology at the core of our favorite devices is smaller and more impressively complex than ever, so understanding and even picturing what it looks like isn't easy. But if you want to wrap your head around a key component of everything from modern smartphones to high-end desktop PCs, you need to understand FinFET technology.

What Is FinFET?

FinFET is a technological innovation that has allowed chip manufacturers like Samsung, TSMC, Intel, and GlobalFoundries to develop ever smaller and more powerful electrical components that make their way into all manner of modern devices.

Indeed, FinFET technology is such an important component of modern chip design that it's used in the marketing of the process nodes they're based on. A recent example in 2019 is the 7nm FinFET process technology at the core of AMD's third-generation Ryzen CPUs. In recent years, Nvidia has used TSMC's 16nm FinFET technology and Samsung's 14nm FinFET technology in its 10 series graphics cards build on the Pascal architecture.

A Technical Breakdown of FinFET Technology

At the technical level, FinFET, or the fin field-effect transistor, is a particular kind of metal-oxide semiconductor transistor (MOSFET) that has a double or triple-gate structure that enables much faster operation and greater current density than traditional designs. That leads to lower voltage requirements, too, making the FinFET design far more energy efficient.

Although the first FinFET transistor design was developed in the 1990s under the name of the Depleted Lean-channel Transistor, or DELTA transistor, it wasn't until the early-2000s that the term FinFET was coined. It’s an acronym of sorts, but the "fin" portion of the name was suggested because both the source and drain regions of the MOSFET form fins on the silicon surface it's built upon.

FinFET Commercial Use

The first commercial usage of FinFET technology was with the 25nm nanometer transistor created by TSMC in 2002. It was known as the "Omega FinFET" design, with further iterations on this technological idea coming in the years that followed, including Intel's Tri-Gate variant, which was introduced in 2011 with its 22nm Ivy Bridge microarchitecture. 

AMD also claimed to be working on similar technology in the early 2000s, although nothing really materialized from it; when AMD divested from its holdings in GlobalFoundries in 2009, the product and fabrications arms of the business were permanently severed.

Starting in 2014, all major chip manufacturers — GlobalFoundries included — began using FiNFET technology based on 16nm and 14nm technology, eventually shrinking the node size to 7nm with the latest iterations.

In 2019, additional technological advancements have allowed for even greater reductions in the length of FinFET gates, leading to 7nm. Within the next couple of years, even 5nm process technology for more powerful and efficient CPUs, graphics cards, and System on Chip (SoCs) will be achievable. However, these node sizes are approximate in most cases and not always directly comparable with TSMC and Samsung's latest 7nm technology, which is said to be roughly comparable to Intel's 10nm process.