Intel's 3D transistor fuels tablet fight with ARM

Intel hasn't broken into the tablet market, but 3D processor tech announced Wednesday could boost chip maker

Intel's new 3D transistor technology could position the chip maker to grab a piece of a burgeoning business that it's been missing out on: the tablet market.

On Wednesday, Intel announced that it has made a major leap in advancing chip technology: 3D transistors. The new technology, expected to make PCs, smartphones and tablets faster and more power-efficient, is slated to make its first appearance when Intel moves to 22-nanometer chips next year.

Instead of building traditional, flat 2D transistors, Intel will build the new transistors upward, making it possible to squeeze in more transistors while maintaining density and a small chip size.

That means new chips using the 3D transistors, which use less than half the power of 2D transistors, will be as much as 37% faster than Intel's current 32nm chips.

What does this mean for Intel? Well, of course it represents a huge boost to the company's efforts to keep up with Moore's Law, Gordon Moore's 42-year-old prediction that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years.

But the advancement also means that Intel may now have a shot at working its way into the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets, which have been a treasure trove for rival ARM.

ARM's chips are used in most tablets and smartphones today, and the company has become an increasingly formidable competitor to Intel, basically blocking the chip giant from getting a solid foothold in the new market.

"The market for mobile devices, like tablets and smartphones, has exploded over the past few years, and Intel needs to be part of the solution on these devices," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "The 3D transistor is a big leap forward for Intel and could be a game-changer for mobile devices.... When this technology is applied to processors in the Atom range, it's going to make them much more competitive with ARM processors."

Intel is the dominant player in the PC chip market, but that segment has been taking a beating lately.

Just last month, industry analysts at IDC reported that global PC shipments dropped 3.2% in the first quarter of 2011, compared with the same period last year.

IDC called the decline the first contraction in the global PC market since the end of the recent recession.

What caused this lack of enthusiasm for PCs? Many point the finger at tablets such as Apple's iPad 2.

One IDC analyst said there was a direct connection between Apple's release of the iPad 2 and the drop in interest in traditional PCs. And analysts from various research firms have been noting for months now that tablets have been cannibalizing the PC market.

Intel faces a twofold problem: It makes a sizable portion of its revenue as a chip supplier in the struggling PC market, and it hasn't made any big inroads into the tablet market.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said Intel is working hard to correct its footing. "Intel has been on the wrong side of this one, and they are aggressively working to correct that," he said, adding that the new 3D transistor technology alone won't likely fix all of Intel's problems.

"Much like it has been near impossible to displace either Intel or Microsoft in the PC space, it is likely to be equally hard to displace ARM in these new device classes, because ARM is entrenched and the ecosystem around it is becoming more robust by the day," Enderle said.

He said Intel desperately needs some very large design wins to get moving in the tablet and smartphone markets. And this 3D chip announcement is a strong place to start.

"Intel has virtually nothing compelling in either the tablet or smartphone space in terms of a shipping product," he added. "[The new technology] is core, no pun intended. This is generally how they advance. But Intel needs to address technology and marketing requirements and, so far, they are only effective on technology."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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