Intel's Ivy Bridge chips launch using '3D transistors'

Cross-section of the Ivy Bridge processor Intel's new Ivy Bridge processors use a new tri-gate transistor technology to boost processing power while reducing the amount of energy needed

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Intel is launching its Ivy Bridge family of processors - the first to feature what it describes as a "3D transistor".

The American firm says the innovation allows it to offer more computational power while using less energy.

The initial release includes 13 quad-core processors, most of which will be targeted at desktop computers.

Further dual core processors, suitable for ultrabooks - thin laptops - will be announced "later this spring".

Intel and PC manufacturers expect the release to drive a wave of new sales.

"The momentum around the system design is pretty astonishing," Intel's PC business chief, Kirk Skaugen, who is spearheading the launch, told the BBC.

"There are more than 300 mobile products in development and more than 270 different desktops, many of which are all-in-one designs.

"This is the world's first 22 nanometre product and we'll be delivering about 20% more processor performance using 20% less average power."

Graphic of Ivy Bridge processor

The firm has already built three factories to fabricate the new chips and a fourth will come online later this year.

"This is Intel's fastest ramp ever," Mr Skaugen added.

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

Low power

The fact that Intel's new transistor technology - the on/off switches at the heart of its chips - are more power-efficient could be crucial to its future success.

To date it has been largely shut out of the smartphone and tablet markets, where devices are most commonly powered by chips based on designs by Britain's Arm Holdings.

Arm now threatens to encroach on Intel's core market with the release of Windows 8 later this year.

Microsoft has decided to let one variant of its operating system work on Arm's architecture, paving the way for manufacturers to build laptops targeted at users who prioritise battery life over processing speeds.

Tri-gate transistors

Intel hopes a new transistor technology, in development for 11 years, will help it challenge Arm's reputation for energy efficiency.

Bell Labs created the first transistor in 1947, and it was about a quarter of the size of an American penny.

Since then, engineers have radically shrunk them in size - so there are now more than one billion fitted inside a single processor.

Moore's law - named after Intel's co-founder Gordon Moore - stated that the number of transistors that could be placed on an integrated circuit should double roughly every two years without a big leap in cost.

However, transistors had become so small that there were fears they would become unreliable if they were shrunk much further.

Intel's 3D tri-gate transistors

Traditionally transistors have used "flat" planar gates designed to switch on and off as quickly as possible, letting the maximum amount of current flow when they are switched on, and minimum when they are switched off.

The transistors' gates in Ivy Bridge chips are just 22nm long (1nm = 1 billionth of a metre), meaning you could fit more than 4,000 of them across the width of a human hair.

Intel plans to incorporate 14nm transistors by 2013 and 10nm by 2015.

The problem is that the smaller that planar gates become, the more energy leakage occurs unless their switching speed is compromised.

Intel's solution has been to make the transistors "3D" - replacing the "2D" gates with super-thin fins that rise up from the silicon base. Three gates are wrapped around each fin - two on each side and the other across the top.

There are several advantages beyond the fact that more transistors can be packed into the same space.

  • Current leakage is reduced to near zero while the gates can still switch on and off more than 100 billion times per second.
  • Less power is needed to carry out the same action.
  • The innovation only adds 2-3% to the cost of making a chip.
Planar and tri-gate chips under microscope Traditional planar chip design (left) and Intel's new Tri-Gate technology (right).

"A lot of people had thought that Moore's law was coming to an end," said Mr Skaugen.

"What Intel has been able to do is instead of just shrinking the transistor in two dimensions, we have been able to create a three-dimensional transistor for the first time.

"For the user, that means the benefits of better performance and energy use will continue for as far as Intel sees on the road map."

Graphics gains

Mr Skaugen said that those who use the integrated GPU (graphics processing unit) on the chips, rather than a separate graphics card, would see some of the biggest gains.

He said the processing speed had been significantly boosted since Sandy Bridge, meaning devices would be capable of handling high-definition video conferences and the 4K resolution offered by top-end video cameras.

The GPU's transcoding rate also benefits from the upgrade, allowing users to recode video more quickly if they want to send clips via email or put them on a smartphone.

The chips also offer new hardware-based security facilities as well as built-in USB 3.0 support. This should make it cheaper for manufacturers to offer the standard which allows quicker data transfers to hard disks, cameras and other peripherals.

Chip challenge

It all poses quite a challenge to Intel's main competitor in the PC processor market - Advanced Micro Devices.

AMD plans to reduce the amount of power its upcoming Piledriver chips consume by using "resonant clock mesh technology" - a new process which recycles the energy used by the processor. However, full details about how it will work and a release date are yet to be announced.

One industry analyst told the BBC that Intel was expected to retain its lead.

"AMD did briefly nudge ahead of Intel in the consumer space in the early 2000s at the time of Windows XP, but since then Intel has been putting in double shifts to break away from its rival," said Chris Green, principal technology analyst at the consultants Davies Murphy Group Europe.

"Intel is making leaps ahead using proven technology, while AMD is trying to use drawing board stuff. So there's less certainty AMD will succeed, and PC manufacturers may not want to adopt its technology in any volume, at least initially."

As advanced as Ivy Bridge sounds, the one thing it is not is future-proof. Intel has already begun to discuss its successor, dubbed Haswell.

"We are targeting 20 times better battery life on standby - always on, always connected," Mr Skaugen said about the update, due for release in 2013.

"So you can get all your files and emails downloaded onto your PC while it's in your bag, and still get more than 10 days of standby and all-day battery life."

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