3D Chips May Help Intel Go Mobile

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 May 4, Intel announced a major leap in chip technology: 3D transistors that could make PCs, smartphones and tablets faster and more power-efficient. The 3D transistors are slated to make their 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.

The development represents a huge boost to the company's efforts to keep up with Moore's Law, Gordon Moore's 1965 prediction that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years.

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.

"It's going to make [Intel] much more competitive with ARM processors," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said the 3D chip gives Intel a good starting point for entering the smartphone and tablet markets, but he said Intel will need to improve its marketing, too. It will be hard for Intel to displace ARM on mobile devices, Enderle said, "because ARM is entrenched and the ecosystem around it is becoming more robust by the day."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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