Is Intel's 3-D transistor a game changer?

New technology increases chip speed and efficiency, extends limits of Moore's Law

Intel's unveiling of its new 3-D transistors on Wednesday was long on geek talk -- the press kit included a backgrounder on "The History of the Transistor" along with "Fun Facts: How small is 22nm?" -- but the significance of the groundbreaking technology can be expressed in plain English: It changes everything.

As IDG News Services reports:

The technology will allow Intel to create transistors that are faster, smaller and more power-efficient, [Intel senior fellow Mark] Bohr said. The benefits of the new technology will range across the product lines from the fastest server to the most power-efficient smartphone chips made by Intel.

The tri-gate transistors will be up to 37 percent faster than Intel's current chips made using the existing 32-nm process. The 3D transistors also consume less than half the power of 2D transistors on 32-nm chips. The chips will also be cheaper, Bohr said.

So far this isn't anything we haven't heard before -- as per Moore's Law, chips continually get both more powerful and smaller.

The benefits of the new transistor technology will be seen on the company's future Atom processors, said Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of Intel Architecture Group. Intel's low-power Atom processors are designed for tablets, netbooks, smartphones and set-top boxes.

Now we're getting into how 3-D transistors benefit Intel, which has not transitioned well into the mobile device market, where ARM Holdings dominates because its energy-efficient chips help conserve smartphone batteries increasingly burdened by heavy computing and apps use.

The real significance of Intel's Ivy Bridge technology, which should be seen in consumer devices early next year, is long-term. While Moore's Law has held true for nearly a half-century, the guy who created it -- Intel co-founder Gordon Moore -- forecast in 2005 that chip manufacturers would hit a "fundamental limit" within 10 to 20 years. In other words, the traditional trajectory of "smaller, faster" chips would fizzle out, meaning manufacturers would have to build bigger chips to get more powerful processing. In an increasingly mobile world, that's a bad trend.

Now, though, it appears Intel has found a way to extend Moore's Law. And that's according to Gordon Moore himself:

"For years we have seen limits to how small transistors can get. This change in the basic structure is a truly revolutionary approach, and one that should allow Moore's Law, and the historic pace of innovation, to continue."

In an official statement, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said, "Intel's scientists and engineers have once again reinvented the transistor, this time utilizing the third dimension."

When he puts it that way, it sounds really cool.

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