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 enable the Ivy Bridge processors to offers 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. They later will begin moving 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 also enable it 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 in which 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.”
Roger Kay, principle analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said it makes sense that Intel will make a significant push into the tablet space with the 22-nm Ivy Bridge chips, but that he wouldn’t expect the company to make its mark in smartphones until it starts coming out with its 14-nm chips—featuring the Tri-Gate technology—about two years later. It won’t be until that time that Intel processors will be able to challenge ARM in low-power capabilities, Kay said.
“Not at 32, maybe at 22, for sure at 14,” he said in an interview with eWEEK. “Maybe 22 is not all the way there for handsets yet, while it’s plenty for the tablet business.”
Both Kay and Rob Enderle, principle analyst with The Enderle Group, said Intel also is facing a market situation from an unfamiliar vantage point. Intel for years has been the dominant player in the PC and server chip space, giving it an advantage similar to that of a political incumbent. Now, however, it’s the upstart company trying to displace the top vendor—ARM—in the mobile device space.
“There is still a lot of inertia holding ARM in place,” Kay said.
That inertia will be difficult for Intel to displace, even with the kind of resources it has.
“Intel is coming at this market from behind, but the investment is almost unparalleled in the history of the company and yet it still might not be enough,” Enderle said in an email. “The difficulty is they have to not only be better, they have to be enough better to displace a very different technology. Generally, Intel has benefited from this dynamic as the entrenched vendor in the PC space; now this market dynamic works against them. Making a massive improvement like this [new transistor structure] will be critical to this battle, but it will still require them to walk away with major wins, and is this is enough to move, even with major Intel co-funding, a major vendor to their product set?”
Over the past week, there has been speculation that Intel is looking to serve as Apple’s foundry for ARM-based chips for such popular mobile devices as iPhones, iPads and iPods. The rumors were fueled by a research note from Piper Jaffray analyst Gus Richard, who said that “based on a number of inputs, we believe Intel is also vying for Apple's foundry business. It makes strategic sense for both companies. The combination of Apple's growing demand and market share in smart phones and tablets gives Intel a position in these markets and drives the logic volume Intel needs to stay ahead in manufacturing.”
Such a deal would be critical for Intel, Enderle said.
“Rumor is that Apple is looking at such a move, and if they get Apple, the earth moves,” he wrote. “But if they don’t get a major brand and/or a very popular product, [the Tri-Gate technology] still won’t be enough.”
Intel is not sitting still waiting for the Ivy Bridge chips. The company last month officially announced its Atom Z670 “Oak Trail” processor designed for tablets, with officials saying they expect at least 35 designs powered by the chip to start hitting the market this month. They also have said they expect Intel-powered smartphones to be released beginning later this year.
Along with helping drive Intel’s mobile ambitions, the Ivy Bridge chips will help counter efforts by ARM and its partners, including Marvell and Nvidia, which are looking to push ARM-based processors into the data center.