In the race to build a faster computer chip, there is literally nowhere to go but up: Today’s chip surfaces are packed with the tiniest electronic switches the laws of physics allow, but Intel Corp. says it is blowing past those limits with a breakthrough, three-dimensional transistor design it revealed May 4.
Analysts call it one of the most significant developments in silicon transistor design since the integrated circuit was invented in the 1950s. It opens the way for faster smart phones, lighter laptops, and a new generation of supercomputers—and possibly for powerful new products engineers have yet to dream up.
Minuscule fins jutting from the surface of the typically flat transistors improve performance without adding size, just as skyscrapers make the most of a small square of land.
“When I looked at it, I did a big, ‘Wow,’” said Dan Hutcheson, a longtime semiconductor industry watcher and CEO of VLSI Research Inc. “What we’ve seen for decades now have been evolutionary changes to the technology. This is definitely a revolutionary change.”
Intel CEO Paul Otellini said that “amazing, world-shaping devices” will be created using the new technology.
Computers are already doing things that were almost unimaginable when Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made his famous prediction in 1965 that computers should double in power every two years.
The axiom, known as Moore’s Law, has held true ever since as computers have gotten cheaper, smaller, and more powerful.
Engineers believe Intel’s new transistors will keep the axiom going for years to come. Chips with the 3-D transistors will be in full production this year and appear in computers in 2012.
When Moore’s Law was first coined, the most advanced computers were large, mainframe-type machines that took up entire rooms and were best suited for narrow tasks done one at a time.