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IHS: Tri-gates give Intel an edge over ARM

Posted: 13 May 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:tri-gate  transistor  low-power consumption 

Market research firm IHS iSuppli views Intel Corp.'s recently announced 22nm tri-gate transistor technology as the microprocessor ammunition that Intel needs to make headway in the smartphone and media tablet market. It will also deter a potential incursion into its PC business from devices based on the architecture of ARM Holdings plc, says IHS.

Intel last week rolled out its 22nm process, featuring a twist—Intel's long-awaited 3D transistor design, known as tri-gate. According to Intel, chips based on this technology will consume less than half the power of devices using 32nm technology and conventional planar transistors, while delivering the same level of performance.

"A 50 per cent reduction in power consumption is significant," says Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms research at HIS, in a statement. "The less power your electronic device consumes, the longer the battery will last, and the longer a user can be truly mobile."

Intel has long sought to increase its presence in mobile devices, where chips based on the more power efficient ARM architecture have proven vastly more popular. Intel's Atom processor has been unable to stop ARM's momentum in the handheld front, although Intel executives have said Atom will be designed into at least one smartphone this year. A persistent lack of success in the mobile arena was widely viewed as the reason that Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Ultra Mobility Group, abruptly resigned in March.

"Marching down the nanometre curve will definitely help Intel to penetrate the market for mobile devices," said Francis Sideco, principal analyst for wireless communications at IHS. "That, however, is only one part of the equation, as power efficiency in these types of devices also requires system-level optimisation of the processors."

Intel is also facing a threat from ARM-based devices in its traditional area of dominance, the PC microprocessor. Microsoft's announcement in January that the next version of the Windows operating system would run on both the X86 and ARM architectures has led to speculation that more power-efficient, lower cost ARM-based processors could eat into Intel's marketshare, particularly in the notebook segment.

But, according to IHS, tri-gate technology 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 smart phones.

IHS notes that the concept of a 3D structure is not new in chip manufacturing—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) and IBM have been developing such technology for several years. However, unlike the TSMC/IBM effort, Intel's tri-gate is ready for volume production—representing a significant technological achievement, according to IHS.

"The capability to go into high-volume production should give Intel a two- to three-year manufacturing advantage over its competitors," says Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing at IHS. Other advantages of Intel's Tri-Gate technology include its scalability, cost, product roadmap and elimination of the use of special wafers, says Jelinek.

IHS says that tri-gate can be shrunk to the sub-20nm level when the next-generation of lithography tools become available, allowing further gains in performance, power savings, and cost reduction. The manufacturing cost of tri-gate technology is only about 2 to 3 per cent more per device compared to conventional planar technology, IHS adds.

Tri-gate also gives Intel a roadmap to extend its 22nm semiconductor manufacturing technology to the Atom platform, which could result in the introduction of a low-power microarchitecture that can be incorporated into cell phones. Transitioning to a tri-gate transistor also gives Intel the capability to manufacture a fully depleted transistor without having to use a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) structure, eliminating the need to use more expensive SOI wafers.

Wilkins says Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), Intel's main competitor in the PC and server x86 microprocessor markets, has been working on reducing the power consumption of its chips for a number of years now, much like Intel. AMD recently launched its accelerated processing units (APUs), which combine the microprocessor core and graphics processor on the same silicon. The aim of AMD's chips is also to extend the battery life at the system level, says Wilkins.

Planar vs. tri-gate transistor

A 32nm planar transistor (left) in which the current—represented by yellow dots—flows in a plane underneath the gate, compared to a 22nm tri-gate transistor with current flowing on three sides of a vertical fin. Source: Intel.

- Dylan McGrath
  EE Times

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