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In American politics, off-year elections are usually a lot less sexy than even-year polls. By the same token, Intel's biennial die shrinks commonly take a back seat in the buzzmobile to the micro-architecture changes that alternate with such fabrication updates on the chip giant's famous "tick-tock" roadmap.
Not this year, says Intel founder Gordon Moore.
Moore recently called Monday's release of Intel's new Penryn-class 45nm processors "one of the biggest transistor advancements in 40 years." If Moore and Intel are to be believed, the Penryn launch could be seen as the silicon equivalent to California's special gubernatorial election in the off-year of 2003. In other words, with Penryn, Intel is promising us the "Tickinator."
Die shrinks are, of course, at the heart of Intel's core mission to relentlessly put more transistors on smaller dies until the end of time or Moore's law, whichever comes first. But generally speaking, the high-tech industry doesn't get too jazzed about "tick" advances, simply because they are fairly boring in their consistency. What's there to get worked up about when you know what you're going to get?
The Penryn processors deliver on Intel's pledge to keep ticking in time with Moore's Law. The 45nm chips have nearly twice the transistor density as Intel's 65nm products, meaning quad-core Penryn processors have up to 820 million transistors, the company said in a release.
But Monday's launch represents a whole lot more than just a die shrink, says Intel CEO Paul Otellini. With hafnium replacing silicon dioxide in its transistors, Intel has finally made the long-planned move to high-k gate dialectrics and metal gates, which Otellini says was necessary to extend the life of Moore's Law.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that we were heading toward a premature end to Moore's Law and thus the pace of innovation everyone has come to expect from Intel and our high-tech industry," Otellini told ChannelWeb in an exclusive interview ahead of the Penryn launch.
The upshot, according to Intel, is that this move to hafnium doesn't just facilitate the shrink from 65nm to 45nm and beyond. The new process also increases transistor switching speed, the chipmaker has said, and it greatly reduces power leakage, thus upping performance-per-watt in the Penryn family of products a great deal beyond what's gained from a typical die shrink. Intel has claimed its 45nm chips get a 38 percent efficiency boost over their 65nm cousins.
Intel is also pushing the environmental advantages of its new fabrication process. The process doesn't use any lead, and the chipmaker says next year's chips will also eliminate halogen materials.
Intel's chips will still feature a front-side bus (FSB), at least until the chipmaker unveils its next major micro-architecture overhaul. That project, codenamed Nehalem, is widely expected to produce processors that are architecturally similar to Advanced Micro Devices' innovative "native" chip design that eliminates the FSB. But with Nehalem products at least six months away, the question is whether the better-than-expected energy efficiency in Intel's hafnium transistors will counter what AMD claims is its own significant edge in performance-per-watt.
Probably not, said Source Code's Brian Corn, but major efficiency gains coupled with other Intel advantages such as clock speed certainly put a lot of pressure on Intel's only major x86 processor rival.
"Penryn is going to tighten the performance-per-watt battle up a little, but AMD still has some space ahead of Nehalem next year. And in those memory-intensive applications, AMD still has it," said Corn, VP of marketing and development at the Waltham, Mass.-based system builder.
"That said, we were kind of surprised that Intel is going to have a 3.20GHz quad-core product on a shrunken die. I'm impressed."