Intel Tri-Gate Transistors Will Fuel Mobile Push vs. ARM

Intel's new 3D transistors, which will appear first in the upcoming "Ivy Bridge" processors, will help drive the vendor's mobile efforts, but will they be enough to dislodge ARM?

Intel's new transistor technology will enable the giant chip maker to continue extending Moore's Law in PCs and servers for at least the next few years, but it's the possible impact on the company's mobile ambitions that will draw the most interest from industry observers.

Intel officials on May 4 introduced the new three-dimensional transistor technology they called Tri-Gate, which essentially moves away from the flat "planar" circuitry of previous designs and to a three-dimensional structure. The Tri-Gate transistors will appear in Intel's upcoming "Ivy Bridge" processors, the 22-nanometer shrink of the current "Sandy Bridge" microarchitecture.

The Tri-Gate design enables the Ivy Bridge processors to offer higher levels of performance while driving down electrical leakage and power consumption, all in a package smaller than the current 32-nm chip design, according to the officials. Bill Holt, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Technology Manufacturing Group, likened the idea behind the Tri-Gate design to that of a skyscraper.

"Clearly you can pack anything in the same space if you go up and not just sideways," Holt said during a press conference in San Francisco that was also Webcast.

The numbers are impressive: 37 percent better performance than current 32-nm chips and 50 percent power reduction. Ivy Bridge chips will begin sampling later this year, and begin appearing in PCs and servers in early 2012, officials said. And they will move into other devices-including tablets and smartphones-at a later date. The officials would not be more specific.

David "Dadi" Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, said during the press conference that not only will the new transistor design keep Intel "extra-competitive" in the company's core server and PC market-where Intel controls more than 80 percent of the market-but it also will enable the company to move even deeper into the smartphone and tablet spaces, which are dominated by processors built on designs from ARM Holdings.

Those are areas that Intel executives said they expect to be major players, thanks to their Atom chip platform.

"The fact that x86 products will have first access to 3D transistor gate technology will likely help offset to the architecture handicap of x86 vs. ARM in optimizing low-power," Doug Freedman, an analyst with Gleacher & Co., said in a research note. "We do not view this as game changing, but do see it as heating up the x86 versus ARM battle."