It’s been an interesting couple of weeks over at Intel. I had meant to do a write-up on all this breaking info weeks ago, but it kind of got away from me. Consider this my catch-up post. Intel debuted some interesting new technology a few weeks ago that will radically change the performance and energy efficiency of its products. As well, the company has announced some changes to their roadmap that is indicative of the changing PC market and Intel’s place in it.
Starting off, we have Intel’s move into the next dimension with 3D transistors. No, these have nothing to do with 3D images or televisions. 3D transistors – what Intel calls their “tri-gate” – work by changing the physical shape of individual transistors in order to allow more voltage through each “gate” – the on/off switch that controls the flow of electrons and allows for binary addition that makes up processors. Traditional transistors are planar and have one surface of silicon for electrons to flow on. In order to increase the performance of transistors, you need to either increase the voltage through the transistor or make it smaller so that the same amount of voltage travels shorter distances. The problem is that as transistors have gotten so small, this strip of silicon is becoming only 100 or so atoms wide. The gate that decides whether a transistor is “on” or “off” has a harder time doing that job on such a tiny scale. Plus, as transistors get so tiny and more and more are added to processors, this inability to judge whether gates are on or off causes leakage, adding heat and power drain to chips.
The phenomenon of “leakage” has been the bane of Intel for over a decade. As transistors shrunk below 90nm (that’s 90 billionths of a meter in size) this became a serious problem. Normally smaller chips should be more efficient and faster, but only if you can combat leakage. So in order to combat this as Moore’s Law demands smaller and faster transistors, Intel and other chip builders have turned to insulator technologies. This applies a layer of insulating metal and oxides on chips which prevent leakage. SOI (silicon-on-insulator) was a popular choice for the 90nm and 65nm nodes from companies like AMD and IBM. Intel started using hafnium – a rare element – as an insulator for its 45nm and 32nm products. However, on the eve of the 22nm revolution, normal insulator technologies are becoming insufficient. Intel’s tri-gate is a radical change that alters the very shape of transistors. Now, instead of this single plane of silicon, it is shaped like a fin. This provides three surfaces for electrons to flow through, thus allowing better conductivity and much faster performance. Intel states that this increases performance by 37% and reduces power draw by 50%. Tri-gates will debut with Ivy Bridge, the 22nm shrink of Intel’s current Sandy Bridge processors. While not architecturally different, the use of Tri-gates could mean major performance and efficiency improvements the likes of which we have never seen in a simple die shrink.
This increased performance with enhanced efficiency bodes well for Intel’s revamp of their notebook processors. For years, Intel’s sweet spot for TDP on notebook chips was 35W. Extreme chips were a bit higher; low and ultra-low voltage are obviously lower in their power draw. But 35W was the standard. Intel sees this as insufficient for the next generation of notebooks that need to be thin, light, and last all day on a single charge. In essence, notebooks are moving towards the Samsung Series 9 or Macbook Air. Intel’s new standard will be 15W, effectively making ULV chips the new standard and 35W where more performance-oriented products will go. Before the Tri-gate, this seemed pretty much impossible. Sandy Bridge ULV processors are not slouches, but the meat and potatoes of the line comes in their quad-core offerings. Tri-gates will allow more performance to be squeezed out of these tiny chips than ever thought possible. It’s a great move for Intel, which needs to change with the times and offer more flexibility in smaller form factors. The company is also accelerating their Atom roadmap and plans to debut processors with tri-gates by early 2012, finally getting these processors up to snuff in the tablet and mobile phone areas.