First Look: Why Intel's 3-D Transistor Is Such A Big Deal


People often remember where they were on announcements of major technological significance. On Wednesday, I was in the CRN Test Center lab, when I heard about Intel's breakthough 3-D transistor process.

It's hard to imagine the scale of the process Intel's is describing, but think of fitting more than 6 million transistors in the period at the end of this sentence. That's the claim Intel is making with news of its Tri-Gate transistor and 22-nm process for mass-producing it. Although it has been referred to as Intel 3-D, it has very little to do with special glasses, Monsters vs. Aliens or the local IMAX theater.

With the triple-gate transistor, Intel has reinvented the technology that powers every computing device -- indeed, all of today's electronics -- and in doing so, has broken the size restrictions currently inherent in today's microprocessors. The breakthrough is not so much the Tri-Gate technology, which was first unveiled by Intel in 2002. What's significant is that the company has developed a process for mass-producing the circuits in a process that's 22 billionths of a meter thick, about a third thinner than the 32-nm process it uses for Sandy Bridge microprocessor architecture (a human hair is about 100,000-nm thick).

According to an Intel document announcing the news, Intel's 3-D Tri-Gate transistors will operate at lower voltage and with lower leakage. "The additional control enables as much transistor current flowing as possible when the transistor is in the 'on' state (for performance), and as close to zero as possible when it is in the 'off' state (to minimize power), and enables the transistor to switch very quickly between the two states," read the statement.

With performance increases according to claims of as much as 37 percent compared with 32-nm planar-transistor devices and consuming less than half the power, the new parts will be highly suited to small handheld devices such as smartphones, medical devices, media players, portable gaming systems and anything that can benefit from the ability to switch quickly between high performance and low power consumption. In essence, everything these days.

Intel today demonstrated Ivy Bridge parts running in a laptop, desktop and server. The company also put out a well-produced video explaining how the 3-D transistor technology works that had already gotten 202,306 hits by the time of this writing.

Intel said today that Ivy Bridge will be ready for high-volume production by the end of this year, and that it will be compatible with its current Sandy Bridge architecture motherboards. So for VARs and solution providers, the transition from Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge -- and to the future of power-efficient computing--should be fairly seamless.