In downtown San Francisco earlier this morning, Intel gathered journalists for its "most significant technology announcement of the year." The news? Intel’s 22-nm manufacturing process will be the first to employ 3D tri-gate transistors, resulting in substantial power savings and performance increases. Not only that, but we’ll be seeing the fruits of Intel’s labor next year with Ivy Bridge, the successor to Sandy Bridge, which will be based on the new transistor type. (Ivy Bridge was demoed running inside three different PCs at the event.)
You don’t need uncomfortable goggles to see Intel’s 3D transistors. As you can see above, planar transistors run current along a flat conducting channel with gates in between, while the 3D tri-gate transistors use a tall, narrow "fin" with three sides. This fin offers a larger conducting channel with a greater surface area in a smaller space. Also, the fins poke through an oxide layer separating the gate from the silicon substrate, which leads to what Intel calls "fully depleted operation." From what I could gather, that means less current leakage and the ability for transistors to operate at lower voltages.
If you’re still scratching your head, the video below dumbs things down:
The point is, thanks to these 3D transistors, Intel says its 22-nm fab process can trim power consumption by more than 50% compared to the company’s existing 32-nm technology. Also, at reduced operating voltages, the new process can boost performance by up to 37%. The chipmaker mentioned a two-fold increase in transistor density, too, but credit for that doesn’t belong entirely to the new transistor type.
According to Intel, 3D transistors will help keep Moore’s Law alive and kicking through the 22-nm and 14-nm process nodes. New inventions will be required to keep transistors shrinking and increasing in number without costs getting out of control after that. In the meantime, the 22-nm process ought to give Intel a competitive advantage—not just in desktops, servers, and laptops, but also tablets and smartphones, where competition with ARM chips produced by other foundries is likely to get more heated.