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Thoughts on Intel’s New 22nm 3D Transistors

Intel’s announcement yesterday announced the next generation of transistor process at 22 nm. New products based on the 22 nm transistors will begin arriving with the Ivy Bridge family in early 2012. What was not expected was that Intel would bet the fab on a radically new way of laying down transistors that puts the company a generation ahead of the silicon industry.

After briefings by Intel executives yesterday, my conclusions are that Intel has really ahead. I’ve sat through four previous generations of new transistor announcements, and it was the latest that got my serious attention.

The science of what Intel has done is relatively easy to explain (see more depth here andhere): for fifty years, integrated circuits have been laid out like city street-maps in two dimensions, called “planar”. As the fabrication process has shrunk now to 22 nm, the shrinking physical area of each transistor creates huge problems in current leakage and gate current. Intel could have done another generation by shrinking its Sandy Bridge 32 nm transistors to 22 nm planar transistors, while picking up modest — 10%-20% performance was widely speculated — performance and power improvements. While Intel would be first to market with 22 nm, ten percent or so improvements is a ho-hum to the (jaded) computer industry. But Intel announced a switch to an industry-first three-dimensional transistor, fooling the market watchers.

3D transistors are laid on top of the usual circuit layout (see photo below). 3D transistor gates are wrapped around three sides of a vertical fin, hence the name tri-gate. Those three-sided contact points make the transistor much more efficient that planar transistors:

  • 3D transistors work with much less input current
  • allowing for a doubling of density, hence smaller chips
  • requiring about half as many power transistors.

The Benefits of Intel’s 22nm Transistors
Compared to today’s Sandy Bridge 32 nm transistors,  22nm 3D transistor microprocessors will perform as well at half the power. For mobile, your battery life doubles. This has enormous implications for mainstream thin-and-light Core family notebooks in 2012 followed by Atom-based tablets and smartphones. For desktops and servers, you’ll see a growing family of more power-efficient processors slotted to electricity-constrained environments.

At the same power levels as today’s Sandy Bridge 32 nm transistors, you’ll find Ivy Bridge performing about 37% faster — a lot more eye-opening than 10%-20% we anticipated.

The much improved power-performance ratio that we’ll see in Ivy Bridge with 22nm silicon gives Intel great leeway in creating enticing products. I expect:

  • Overclockers will push 6GHz while performance SKUs exceed 4.0GHz
  • An expanded Turbo range of 1-1.5GHz allowing for a performance boost at whim
  • Apple MacBook Air for the masses. Or at least the mainstream 1.5lb $600 Windows business laptop.
  • By 2013, the tablet and smartphone war with ARM will see pitched battles. Ultra-low voltage Intel microprocessors finally have close-enough battery life to compete head-to-head.
  • With a wider range of performance and power-sipping product opportunities, we’ll see more and different form factors.

Where 22nm 3D Transistors Place Intel
With 22nm planar transistors, Intel would lead the microprocessor industry. But the third-dimension transistors on top of a 22nm process likely put Intel two nodes ahead of the competition. Intel will lead in production-ready transistor technology for at least four years.

The fact that Intel will produce all of its 2012 Ivy Bridge microprocessors using 100% 3D tri-gate 22nm transistors tells me the company is convinced it has the technology completely in hand.

All in all,  22nm 3D transistors are truly revolutionary. By expanding the gate area with a 3D vertical fin, Intel is showing a higher-probability path to continuing Moore’s Law at 10nm and below in the 2015 timeframe. That assurance alone is worth tens of billions to the technology industry.

22nm tri-gate transistor
General Mills Rice Chex

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