With the introduction of its 3-D transistor technology, Intel has set its sights on a mobile future and its toughest competitor to date: ARM Holdings.
In a press event yesterday in San Francisco, Calif., Intel introduced a revolutionary 3-D transistor that is processed with 22 nanometer technology. Intel says it will be the first mass-produced transistor to go beyond the two-dimensional planar transistor structure. The new transistors, which Intel says is the evolutionary next step in Moore's Law, have 37 percent more performance than its predecessors while using less power.
The 3-D transistor, named Tri-Gate, uses an incredibly thin three-dimensional silicon fin that rises up vertically from the silicon substrate. Unlike the previous generation where control of the current was accomplished through one gate on top, in Tri-Gate it's done by implementing a gate on three sides of the fin.
The big appeal for the smaller, but more powerful transistor is its capabilities in mobile products. During the event, Intel outright predicted the transistor would be huge in smartphones and tablets, which operate using less energy to switch back and forth.
Tri-Gate's possibilities in mobile couldn't come at a better time for Intel, which faces an increasing threat from ARM Holdings. The Cambridge, England-based ARM manufacturers the ARM architecture, a 32-bit processor licensed and used by a significant amount of major semiconductor companies including Qualcomm, Samsung and Nvidia. It has become a popular processor for an increasing amount of smartphones and tablets, including the iPhone and iPad.
ARM's domination in mobile devices could lead to a stronger presence in personal computing. Research firm IDC thinks so; according to their latest report, IDC said by 2015, 13 percent of PC processors will be based on the ARM architecture. This comes after IDC forecasted PC microprocessor units by processor architecture for the first time, and included ARM in that categorization.
Shane Rau, analyst for IDC, told MarketWatch that their predictions come after Microsoft's announcement that the next version of Windows will support ARM's technology.
Analysts, which have been down on Intel's lack of penetration in the mobile market, were impressed by Tri-Gate, with many saying it could overwhelm ARM. UBS analyst, Uche Orji, expressed this sentiment in a note to investors.
Given the potential power consumption advantage, 22nm Atom system-on-chip (SoC) devices for smartphones/tablets could deliver dramatically better performance and close the gap vs competing ARM processors at 28nm, Orji said.
John Pitzer, analyst at Credit Suiss also said the Tri-Gate 3-D transistor will help Intel become successful in non-traditional markets such as tablets, smartphones, and says it will happen within the next 12 months. Furthermore, he says at 22nm, he expects Intel to have better performance at lower power than ARM.
The Tri-Gate 3D transistor will provide a big boost to Intel's x86 architecture against ARM is whatDoug Freedman, analyst at Gleacher & Company, says will happen.. The fact that x86 products will have first access to 3D transistor gate technology will likely help offset to the architecture handicap of x86 vs. ARM in optimizing low-power, Freedman said. We do not view this as game changing, but do see it as heating up the x86 versus ARM battle.
However, Freedman is also cautious not to be too optimistic regarding Intel's new technology. He says ARM has become so embedded in the tablet and smartphone markets that it will not be easy to overcome. Bernstein Research analyst Stacy Rasgon in note had the same exact thoughts as Freedman.
We do not believe the new 22-nanometer technology will accelerate Intel's offerings in the mid-term vis-à-vis ARM in the ultra-mobile space, Rasgon said.