Intel's 3D breakthrough: Mobile comes last

Company trumpets production-readiness of 3D Tri-Gate transistor for 22nm chips, but the time frame for a mobile version remains hazy

Chipmaker Intel announced today it's kinda-sorta ready to crank out a new breed of 3D transistors, dubbed Tri-Gate, that will power the company's newly minted 22 nanometer chip, code-named Ivy Bridge. These chips, which Intel said yield unprecedented power savings and performance gains, could give the company a much-needed boost in winning over mobile-device makers like Apple, so long as Apple and other hardware makers are willing to wait.

Intel first revealed its Tri-Gate design back in 2002; the trick has been devising a method of mass-producing the transistors. The company said that Tri-Gate will aid in speeding up development of the Intel Atom, such that it could become a viable competitor to the ever-popular ARM. What remains unclear, though, is just when Intel will be able to start rolling out mobile processors equipped with the Tri-Gate.

On the other hand, Intel is closer to mass-producing processors equipped with Tri-Gate for desktop and data center hardware: The company demonstrated its 22nm chips in action today on both a client and a server. Hardware equipped with Ivy Bridge will start materializing by the end of this year or possibly next year, which will give Intel, by its account, a three-year lead over the competition.

The transistor's 3D descriptor alludes to the fact it has a silicon fin rising vertically from the silicon substrate, as opposed to a flat 2D planar gate. In essence, the Tri-Gate has a gate on each of fin's three sides, rather than just one gate across the top, which greatly improves current control. That is, it enables to transistors to quickly jump from on to off, resulting in higher performance and reduced energy waste. The above image shows the vertical fins of Intel's 22nm 3D Tri-Gate transistor passing through the gates.

According to Intel, the 3D Tri-Gate transistors yield up to 37 percent higher performance over today's 32nm planar transistors. Further, these transistors consume less than half the power as the planar variants.

That boost in performance and decrease in power consumption are indeed strong selling points, both for mobile devices and for desktop and data center hardware.

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