Intel redesigns transistors for faster computers

May 4, 2011 10:40:21 PM PDT
Many technology breakthroughs have been described as revolutionary or even as the best thing to come along since sliced bread. But this time, Santa Clara-based chipmaker Intel "didn't just hit a home run. They hit the ball out of the park."

That's what is being said in Silicon Valley Wednesday after Intel announced the creation of a 3D transistor that will boost performance 37 percent over current transistors, use less power, and take up less space inside increasingly smaller devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers. The 3D Tri-Gate transistor has tiny fins, replacing a two-dimensional flat design in use since the 1950s.

Amazingly, six million of the Tri-Gate transistors are about the size of a period at the end of a sentence. Intel made the announcement at a news conference Wednesday in San Francisco.

Nathan Brookwood, a research fellow and semiconductor industry analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, says Intel's new design will keep Moore's Law alive. Named after the co-founder and retired chairman of Intel, Gordon Moore, Moore's Law says the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years. The more transistors on a chip, greater performance and lower cost will result.

"When they were lying down, you had a transistor gate that was getting smaller and smaller, and therefore the number of electrons that could flow through it was being somewhat constrained," said Brookwood.

"This transition to 3D devices will help us continue Moore's law," said Bill Holt with Intel Technology Manufacturing. "Clearly you can pack more things in the same space if you begin to go up as opposed to just sideways, just as a skyscraper than buildings around us."

Intel plans to have mass production of its Tri-Gate transistor underway by the end of the year. Analysts say major revamping will be done to fabrication plants Intel operates in Oregon and Arizona.

The new 3D transistor will open the door for Intel to become a major player in supplying chips for the fast-growing segments of smartphones and tablets where it has lagged. However, the same chips can be used for cars, household appliances, medical devices and spacecraft.

Analyst Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research in Santa Clara, says video streaming should improve with the new transistors with increased processing power. A major problem with existing chip sets is the drain on batteries. The Tri-Gate transistors appear to address both issues.

"Being able to do this with this kind of processing power gives you a huge advantage if you can get the power envelope down to where you just don't drain the battery in a single movie," said Hutcheson.

Intel plans to have mass production underway by the end of the year.

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