Electronics giant Intel says it has redesigned the electronic switches on its chips so that computers can keep getting cheaper and more powerful.
The switches, known as transistors, have typically been flat. By adding a third dimension – “fins” that jut up from the base – Intel will be able to make the transistors and chips smaller. The company said the new structure will let chips run on less power, giving the company 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 3D transistors will be in full production this year and appear in computers in 2012.
Intel has been talking about 3D, 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.
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.
Analysts say the design is 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.
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 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.
The new technology will be used for Intel’s PC chips and its Atom line.
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