Intel's new Tri-Gate transistor technology should give it the ammunition it needs to stave off a challenge by rival ARM Holdings in the PC business and enable Intel to make inroads into the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets, according to some analysts.
A week after Intel executives announced that its 3D transistor structure-which the company had been working on for almost a decade-was ready to go into production, industry analysts continue to assess the risks and benefits to the giant chip maker.
Company officials said they were spending millions to outfit their fabs to be able to make the Tri-Gate-based chips, which they said will boost the performance of the processors by 18 to 37 percent while consuming half the power of current offerings. The new 22-nanometer "Ivy Bridge" chips with the Tri-Gate technology are expected to begin getting to OEMs later this year, with products appearing in early 2012.
"A 50 percent reduction in power consumption is significant," Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms research at IHS iSuppli, said in a statement issues May 10. "The less power your electronic device consumes, the longer the battery will last, and the longer a user can be truly mobile."
It's that mobility that's increasingly important to Intel. The company is the dominant chip maker in the PC and server businesses, but it also has ambitions in the mobile device space, particularly in tablets and smartphones. In that market, most devices now run on ARM-designed chips built by the likes of Samsung, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. To gain a foothold there, Intel will have to drive down the power consumption of its x86 processors, and then convince device makers to switch from the established ARM architecture.
At the same time, ARM's low-power chip designs are expected to make inroads into the laptop PC market, as OEMs look to improve the battery life of their systems. Market research firm Gartner is expecting ARM to capture 13 percent of the PC chip space by 2015. Intel currently owns more than 80 percent of the market, followed by Advanced Micro Devices.
"Chip performance in the markets where Intel actively competes is measured in two distinct areas: in high-voltage settings (conventional PCs, laptops and servers) and low-voltage settings (mobile handsets, smartphones, tablets and netbooks)," Charles King, principle analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in a May 11 report. "Intel dominates in high-voltage applications and devices, but has faced serious challenges in penetrating low-voltage markets, except for the success of its Atom processors in netbooks. According to the company, Tri-Gate transistors will provide the tools Intel requires to continue leading its traditional markets and make it far more competitive in low-voltage applications."
However, along with aiding Intel's mobile push, the Tri-Gate transistors-which feature conducting channels on three sides of what officials call a vertical "fin"-will give Intel the technology it needs to defend its PC chip dominance from ARM, which got a boost when Microsoft announced earlier this year that it its Windows products will support such SoC (system-on-a-chip) architectures.
"With its historical advantage in power consumption, ARM could stand to eat into the X86's core market in PCs, particularly in notebooks," IHS iSuppli analysts said in their research note. "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 smartphones."
ARM's threat began to crystallize last week, when speculation grew that Apple officials planned to migrate their MacBook laptops from Intel processors to ARM-designed chips within the next three years. A Website fueled the speculation with a report based on unnamed Apple sources.
However, a May 9 report on the technical Website Real World Technologies talked about the technical and business challenges that would go into making such a transition and argued that it wouldn't make sense for Apple to jump from Intel to ARM.
"While there are advantages for Apple to use ARM and precedents for such transitions, it is an exceptionally unlikely scenario," David Katner wrote.
Another important aspect of Intel's Tri-Gate technology is that switching to the new architecture will only add 2 percent to 3 percent of the production costs, Pund-IT's King wrote. In addition, going into production now with the Tri-Gate chips will give Intel a significant advantage over other vendors-in particular, IBM and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.-which also is working on a 3D structure, according to Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing at IHS iSuppli.
"The capability to go into high-volume production should give Intel a two- to three-year manufacturing advantage over its competitors," Jelinek said in the report.