EL SEGUNDO, CA — With its new Tri-Gate 3-D transistor technology, Intel Corp. will have the low-power microprocessor ammunition it needs to assault the tablet and smart phone semiconductor market—and to fight off a potential incursion into the PC business from rival ARM devices, new IHS iSuppli (NYSE: IHS) research indicates.
Intel will offer X86 microprocessors based on its new 3-D tri-gate transistors manufactured using 22-nanometer (nm) process technology. These microprocessors will consume less than half the power of devices using 32nm technology and conventional planar transistors, while still delivering the same level of performance.
“A 50 percent reduction in power consumption is significant,” said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms research at IHS. “The less power your electronic device consumes, the longer the battery will last, and the longer a user can be truly mobile.”
Such a move will allow Intel to make a renewed bid to establish a presence in the tablet and smart phone chipset market, now dominated by ARM-based applications and baseband processors. “Marching down the nanometer curve will definitely help Intel to penetrate the market for mobile devices,” noted Francis Sideco, principal analyst for wireless communications at IHS. “That, however, is only one part of the equation, as power efficiency in these types of devices also requires system-level optimization of the processors.”
The development of the Tri-Gate technology also will serve as a defensive measure for Intel, facing a new challenge from ARM in its core PC microprocessor business. Microsoft Corp. in the first quarter of 2011 announced it would support the ARM microprocessor in the next version of its Windows operating system. This represents a major change in the global PC market, given that Windows almost always has been an X86-exclusive operating system.
With its historical advantage in power consumption, ARM could stand to eat into the X86’s core market in PCs, particularly in notebooks.
However, Tri-Gate will make X86 a better matchup for ARM. In terms of power consumption, X86 will become more competitive with ARM in low-power devices such as notebooks, netbooks, tablets and smart phones.
High-volume production worthy
Intel’s Tri-Gate transistor technology employs a 3-D structure that allows for greater power efficiency. The concept of a 3-D structure is not new in chip manufacturing—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) and IBM have been developing such technology for several years. However, unlike the TSMC/IBM effort, Intel’s Tri-Gate is ready for volume production—representing a significant technological achievement.
“The capability to go into high-volume production should give Intel a two- to three-year manufacturing advantage over its competitors,” sad Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing at IHS.
Other advantages of Intel’s Tri-Gate technology include its scalability, cost, product roadmap and elimination of the use of special wafers.
Tri-Gate can be shrunk to the sub-20nm level when the next-generation of lithography tools become available, allowing further gains in performance, power savings and cost reduction. Furthermore, the manufacturing cost of Tri-Gate technology is only about 2 to 3 percent more per device compared to conventional planar technology. Tri-Gate also gives Intel a roadmap to extend its 22nm semiconductor manufacturing technology to the Atom platform, which could result in the introduction of a low-power microarchitecture that can be incorporated into cell phones.
Finally, transitioning to a tri-gate transistor gives Intel the capability to manufacture a fully depleted transistor without having to use a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) structure. This eliminates the need to use special SOI wafers, which cost more than conventional wafers.
A long time coming
Wilkins noted that Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), Intel’s main competitor in the PC and server X86 microprocessor markets, has been working on reducing the power consumption of its chips for a number of years now, much like Intel.
In fact, AMD recently launched its accelerated processing units (APUs), which combine the microprocessor core and graphics processor on the same silicon. The aim of AMD’s chips is also to extend the battery life at the system level.