Analysts Say the Tri-Gate Architecture Gives Intel an Edge

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2012-04-23

Intel Launches Quad-Core Ivy Bridge Chips for High-End PCs

Intel is launching the first wave of its new Ivy Bridge processors, a collection of quad-core chips aimed at the desktop and high-end laptop markets. More versions of the 22-nanometer chips, including dual-core processors and offerings for the Ultrabook market, will begin arriving later this spring, according to company officials.

The Ivy Bridge chips, which Intel executives have been touting for months and finally released April 23, are expected to offer better performance and graphics capabilities while driving down power consumption, due in large part of the introduction of the company€™s three-dimensional Tri-Gate transistor architecture. The Tri-Gate architecture essentially moves away from the flat "planar" circuitry of previous designs and to a three-dimensional structure that enables Intel to offer better performance and power efficiency.

Intel reportedly initially is releasing 13 quad-core processors, with dual-core and other versions coming later.

In an interview with the BBC, Kirk Skaugen, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel€™s PC Client Group, said there are more than 300 mobile products in development that will leverage the Ivy Bridge chips, as well as more than 270 desktops that will make their way to the market, many of which are the increasingly popular all-in-one systems.

"The momentum around the system design is pretty astonishing," Skaugen said. "This is the world's first 22-nanometer product, and we'll be delivering about 20 percent more processor performance using 20 percent less average power."

In addition, Intel is ensuring there will be no issues around production or availability of the new chips, dubbed the third generation of Core processors. The giant chip maker has built three factories outfitted to build the Ivy Bridge processors, with a fourth one due to come online late this year. Skaugen calls the Ivy Bridge effort the company€™s fastest ramp ever.

"There will be 50 percent more supply than we had early in the product cycle of our last generation, Sandy Bridge, a year ago,€ he said. €œAnd we're still constrained based on the amount of demand we're seeing in the marketplace."

Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates, said Ivy Bridge and the Tri-Gate architecture are highlighting Intel's strong leadership in both technology and manufacturing that rivals will have trouble matching. While some chip manufacturers, like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, are making 28nm chips, they're having problems supplying their customers. For example, Qualcomm officials this month spoke of problems producing enough 28nm chips. In addition, Advanced Micro Devices has had supply problems with manufacturer Globalfoundries, Gold said in an April 23 research note.

Analysts Say the Tri-Gate Architecture Gives Intel an Edge

Although Intel has been criticized in the past for spending so much money to build and run its own fabs, "we believe the advantage of having its own integrated process capability has brought it significant market advantage," Gold wrote. "Without this capability, it is unlikely [Intel] would have been able to so quickly move to mass produce its Tri-Gate transistors using the High K metal gate technology it also pioneered."

It probably won't be two years before other manufacturers can duplicate the Tri-Gate technology, "giving Intel a major competitive advantage," Gold wrote.

The new graphics capabilities integrated into Ivy Bridge€”always a weak point in the Sandy Bridge chips€”will reduce the need for more expensive discrete graphics in more than 95 percent of systems sold, he said. "Integrated graphics has the ability to reduce cost, power and physical size of systems, especially in the new age of Ultrabooks and other portable devices," Gold wrote.

Beau Skonieczny, an analyst with Technology Business Research (TBR), said in a research note following Intel€™s first-quarter earnings announcement April 17 that the Ivy Bridge chips will be key drivers for Intel in 2012, even with what he said was the uncertainty that surrounds Ultrabooks and Intel-based mobile devices.

"[T]he quad-core iterations of Ivy Bridge will appeal mostly to enterprises and SMB [small and midsize business] customers looking to adopt all-in-one desktops," Skonieczny wrote. "However, TBR believes dual-core Ivy Bridge processors€”which will shortly follow the quad-core versions€”will drive more rapid growth for Intel, as demand for notebooks and premium Ultrabooks continues to grow."

Ultrabooks are a new laptop form factor that Intel is driving as one way of gaining a foothold in the booming mobile computing space and of boosting a maturing PC market. The Ultrabooks are designed to offer the productivity capabilities of traditional laptops while offering some of the key features€”including instant-on, long battery life and touch-screens€”that are found in tablets.

During a conference call to discuss the quarterly financial numbers, CEO Paul Otellini said there already are 21 Ultrabooks on the market powered by current 32nm Sandy Bridge chips, and that another 100 designs are in the pipeline that will leverage the Ivy Bridge chips. Intel executives expect the Ivy Bridge architecture to fuel Ultrabook adoption, not only because of the performance and power efficiency improvements, but also because it will enable OEMs to drive down the cost of the systems.

With the Tri-Gate transistor architecture, Ivy Bridge also is expected to help Intel with its growing rivalry against ARM Holdings, whose low-power chip designs are found in most smartphones and tablets. Improving performance while driving down power consumption will be key for Intel, which covets the fast-growing mobile device space.

At the same time, it also will help Intel in its efforts to stave off ARM€™s expected incursion into PCs and low-power servers, areas that that have long been Intel€™s domain. ARM and its manufacturing partners€”including Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics and Texas Instruments€”are hoping to make inroads into the those markets later this year, when Microsoft releases its Windows 8 operating system, which for the first time will have a version that supports system-on-a-chip architectures like ARM€™s.

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