Intel redesigns transistors for faster computers

May 04, 2011 By JORDAN ROBERTSON , AP Technology Writer
22nm Transistor. This image shows the vertical fins of Intel’s revolutionary tri-gate transistors passing through the gates.

Intel Corp. said Wednesday that it has redesigned the electronic switches on its chips so that computers can keep getting cheaper and more powerful.

The switches, known as , have typically been flat. By adding a third dimension - "fins" that jut up from the base - will be able to make the transistors and chips smaller. Think of how skyscrapers address the need for more office space when land is scarce.

The company said the new structure will let chips run on less power. That gives Intel its best shot yet at cracking the growing markets for chips used in smartphones and tablet computers. Intel has been weak there because its current chips use too much power.

Chips with the 3-D transistors will be in full production this year and appear in computers in 2012.

Intel has been talking about 3-D, or "tri-gate," transistors for nearly a decade, and other companies are experimenting with similar technology. The announcement is noteworthy because Intel has figured out how to manufacture the transistors cheaply in mass quantities.

Transistors are at the center of the digital universe. They're the workhorses of modern electronics, tiny on/off switches that regulate electric current. They're to computers what synapses are to the human nervous system.

Transistors operate in the shadows, but they're integral to daily life. And they need to shrink, so that computers can get smaller and smarter.

A chip can have a billion transistors, all laid out side by side in a single layer, as if they were the streets of a city. Chips have no "depth" - until now. On Intel's chips, the fins will jut up from that streetscape, sort of like bridges or overpasses.

However, Intel's advance doesn't mean it can add a whole second layer of transistors to the chip, or start stacking layers into a cube. That remains a distant but hotly pursued goal of the industry, as cubic chips could be much faster that flat ones while consuming less power.

An illustration of a 32nm transistor compared to a 22nm transistor. On the left side is the 32nm planar transistor in which the current (represented by the yellow dots) flows in a plane underneath the gate. On the right is the 22nm 3-D Tri-Gate transistor with current flowing on 3 sides of a vertical fin.

The demand is there for smartphones that deliver the Internet in our pockets, supercomputers that beat human champions at "Jeopardy!," and other feats of computer wizardry that would have been impossible in the 1970s. Processors then could only hold several thousand transistors. Today they hold billions.

The latest change isn't something that consumers will be able to see because it happens at a microscopic level. But analysts call it one of the most significant shifts in silicon transistor design since the integrated circuit was invented more than half a century ago.

"When I looked at it, I did a big, `Wow.' What we've seen for decades now have been evolutionary changes to the technology. This is definitely a revolutionary change," said Dan Hutcheson, a longtime semiconductor industry watcher and CEO of VLSI Research Inc., who was briefed ahead of time on Intel's announcement.

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For consumers, the fact that Intel's transistors will have a third dimension means that they can expect a continuation of Moore's Law. The famous axiom, pronounced in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, has guided the computer industry's efforts and given us decade after decade of cheaper and more powerful computers.

The core of Moore's prediction is that computer performance will double every two years as the number of transistors on the chips roughly doubles as well. The progress has been threatened as transistors have been shrunken down to absurd proportions, and engineers have confronted physical limitations on how much smaller they can go. Controlling power leakage is a central concern.

For Intel, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif., the change is a reminder of its leadership in advanced semiconductor technology and its incentive to keep Moore's Law alive.

Previous major changes have focused on new materials that can be used for transistors, not entire redesigns of the transistors themselves.

"People have been trying to avoid changing the structure," Hutcheson said.

Other semiconductor companies argue that there's still life to be squeezed from the current design of transistors. Hutcheson agrees, but said Intel's approach should allow it to advance at least a generation ahead of its rivals, which include IBM Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

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The reduced power consumption addresses a key need for Intel.

The performance expectations and power requirements for PCs are much higher than they are for phones and tablet computers, so Intel's dominance in PC chips doesn't necessarily lead to success in mobile devices. Even Intel's Atom-based chips, which are designed for mobile devices, have been criticized as too power hungry.

The new technology will be used for Intel's PC chips and its Atom line.

Technological leadership alone won't guarantee success, however, as Intel has learned in repeated attempts at cracking the mobile market.

Other chip makers such as Qualcomm Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. have entrenched partnerships with cellphone makers, and there is suspicion about the performance of Intel's chips in mobile devices.

"When it comes to the mobile market, they have their work cut out for them," Hutcheson said of Intel. But "this gives you the transistors to build the next great system."

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User comments : 13

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fmfbrestel
5 / 5 (3) May 04, 2011
"they'rrrrrrrrre great!!!!!!!!!" Please. If i wanted tony the tiger to give me tech news, I wouldn't come to this site. How much faster? how much less power? Will we see them in memory chips about the same time? What kind of performance increases for memory? none of that info is available here.
wealthychef
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2011
"they'rrrrrrrrre great!!!!!!!!!" Please. If i wanted tony the tiger to give me tech news, I wouldn't come to this site. How much faster? how much less power? Will we see them in memory chips about the same time? What kind of performance increases for memory? none of that info is available here.

Instead of complaining like a little whiny child, how about using Google to answer the question? http://www.crunch...otprint/
LOL
fmfbrestel
not rated yet May 04, 2011
"Instead of complaining like a little whiny child, how about using Google to answer the question? http://www.crunch...otprint/
LOL

That was the very next thing i did, my complaint is with what this site chooses to publish. If I want fluffy news articles, I'll just stay at news.google. Details are what sets this site apart from the chaff, and articles like this one only diminish this site's importance.
Moebius
not rated yet May 04, 2011
When they come out with a mobile chip using this technology it might be a good time to buy Intel stock.
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
The core of Moore's prediction is that computer performance will double every two years as the number of transistors on the chips roughly doubles as well.


No it isn't. Moore predicted only that the number of transistors on a cost-effective chip will roughly double every 1½ years; the prediction which has been revised many times as the doubling of transistors has slowed down.

I propose a new law: the Singularity law. It states that the number of people mis-quoting and misunderstanding the Moore's law will roughly double every two years.

Then everyone will be very dissapointed when nerd-rapture didn't happen in 2015 and Ray Kurtzweil died before they invented immortality.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) May 05, 2011
For what it's worth, the Moore's law isn't even a proper prediction - it is an observation of what is happening right now. It makes no claim about anything beyond the very near foreseeable future.

In mathematical terms, we have f(x) and then f'(x) and what moore's law is, is f'(today). On it's own, it won't tell us anything about what is f'(tomorrow).
Ethelred
5 / 5 (1) May 05, 2011
Eikka
No it isn't. Moore predicted only that the number of transistors on a cost-effective chip will roughly double every 1½ years;


I propose a new law: the Singularity law. It states that the number of people mis-quoting and misunderstanding the Moore's law will roughly double every two years.


From Wikipedia

Moore's original
The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year... Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase.


Moore slightly altered the formulation of the law over time, in retrospect bolstering the perceived accuracy of his law.[16] Most notably, in 1975, Moore altered his projection to a doubling every two years.[17] Despite popular misconception, he is adamant that he did not predict a doubling "every 18 months".


I predict that Moore's will continue to be misquoted as Eikka just did because Moore changed it. More than once.

Ethelred
Na_Reth
3 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
I predict that this technology could have been developed years ago but they use Moore's law to extend their profit and lifetime of their company.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) May 05, 2011
I predict that this technology could have been developed years ago but they use Moore's law to extend their profit and lifetime of their company.


It WAS developed years ago, and you are correct.

There has even been a couple paragraphs in a wikipedia article about it for some time, probably well over a year.

In fact, Intel already knows how to mass produce ~11nm process chips, and they've even publicly said so a few months ago.

They are simply milking "Moore's Law" for all they can, since they make the obscene 25% profit margin even after counting 10 years worth of re-investments against a single year's profits. They will probablly have a 50% profit margin each year for the next 5 years or so.
ECOnservative
not rated yet May 05, 2011
@Quantum_Con: And this is a bad thing? Commercialization and profit generally pay salaries and reward investors, as well as funneling money and effort into R&D. Which part of this are you against?

Competition improves the breed, so expect other companies to follow suit.
Eikka
not rated yet May 11, 2011
@Quantum_Con: And this is a bad thing? Commercialization and profit generally pay salaries and reward investors, as well as funneling money and effort into R&D. Which part of this are you against?

Competition improves the breed, so expect other companies to follow suit.


R&D cost and wages generally count against the profit margin.

It is usually undestood to mean "the amount of money we're left with after we paid everyone".

Apple for example has close to 40% profit margin, which means that any time you buy the average Apple product, they actually had to pay 60% of the price in materials and wages to produce it. You can then compare that to the industry average of 20% profit margin, which tells you that for what you pay to Apple, you could get more value from anybody else.
Eikka
not rated yet May 11, 2011
Of course, the comparison holds only if you assume that the different manufacturers all have similiar costs to produce similiar value.

It might not hold for e.g. Intel and AMD, but for companies like Sony and Apple it does, because they're getting their parts from the exact same producers.
Ethelred
not rated yet May 11, 2011
which tells you that for what you pay to Apple, you could get more value from anybody else.
This assumes that the hardware is all that counts for determining value. People buy Apple for a number of things besides the hardware. Stability is a key for the buyers of Apple computers. And after you install Windows they make reliable Windows machines and finally do business software.

Or the most important thing of all games. To quote a parody of an old Mac ad campaign:

And you know the games are all good because you played them three ago on the PC.


And no I don't own a Mac. Had an Apple ][ though.

Ethelred