Intel "Reinvents" Microprocessor with New 3D Design

For years, Intel's devotion to Moore's Law—which, in simplified form, suggests that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years—has resulted in ever thinner microprocessors, the latest of which are down to 32nm in thickness. But this week, Intel announced that it is now increasing the number of transistors on its chips by growing in a third dimension. And according to Intel, these so-called 3D chips are a truly revolutionary new approach.

"Intel's scientists and engineers have once again reinvented the transistor, this time utilizing the third dimension," says Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini. "Amazing, world-shaping devices will be created from this capability as we advance Moore's Law into new realms."

The new chip design, dubbed Finfet (for fin field-effect transistor), includes a new series of raised fins that contain a new conductive area, or transistor, dramatically increasing the performance and power management of the resulting chip when compared with traditional, flat chips of the same thickness. As you can see in the image below, the resulting transistor takes on a grilled appearance, much like certain snack chips.

Traditional transistor design (on the left) compared to the new tri-gate, or Finfet design (on the right).
Traditional transistor design (on the left) compared with the new tri-gate, or Finfet design (on the right).

According to Intel, the new design results in a 37 percent performance boost and a power-consumption reduction of up to 50 percent. But the company is also looking ahead: It announced a 22nm process for these new chips this week, compared with today's more traditional 32nm chips, and it plans to hit 10nm with the same design by 2015. These smaller, denser chips will also provide various performance and power-management improvements of their own, Intel says.

Others aren't sold on the design, however. And though it's hard to separate competitive angst from real-world concern, some non-Intel chip designers say that the microprocessor giant is pursuing a familiar, failed path. That is, they believe the new design emphasizes performance over power consumption—a retread of the ill-fated "megahertz wars" of the past decade. According to this line of reasoning, the future of computing requires much lower-power chips with less heady high-end performance. And although Intel dominates traditional computing markets, its chips are used less frequently in new markets for phones, tablets, and other highly mobile computing devices.

Regardless of the outcome, Intel's announcement this week was clearly a technological coming-out party, an attempt by the company to show how far ahead it is of its rivals. Chip companies have been talking about 3D designs for years. But for now, at least, only Intel is manufacturing such chips.

And besides, what other company but Intel could get the originator of Moore's Law, Intel Cofounder Gordon Moore, to supply a quote?

"For years we have seen limits to how small transistors can get," said Moore. "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."
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