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Intel Corp.'s recently unveiled 22nm process technology with tri-gate transistors may not only help to shrink the company's microprocessors in order to compete better against traditional rival Advanced Micro Devices, but also to step onto the land of ARM, the architecture that powers the majority of handhelds.

“Marching down the nanometer curve will definitely help Intel to penetrate the market for mobile devices,” noted Francis Sideco, principal analyst for wireless communications at IHS iSuppli.

According to Intel itself, the 22nm 3D tri-gate transistors provide up to 37% performance increase at low voltage versus Intel's 32nm planar transistors, which means that operating voltage and thus power consumption can be further reduced with present levels of performance. Analyst David Kanter of Real World Technologies web-site claims that even taking Intel’s estimates conservatively, the 22nm/tri-gate process tech provides performance/watt advantage of 10-20% for power optimized chips versus a planar 22nm process. Observers from IHS iSuppli believe that the new tech will virtually cut down power consumption of Intel's 22nm/tri-gate chips by 50% versus processors made using 32nm/planar technology.

"A 50% reduction in power consumption is significant. The less power your electronic device consumes, the longer the battery will last, and the longer a user can be truly mobile," said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms research at IHS iSuppli.

Such a move will allow Intel to make a renewed bid to establish a presence in the tablet and smart phone chipset market, now dominated by ARM-based applications and baseband processors.

“That, however, is only one part of the equation, as power efficiency in these types of devices also requires system-level optimization of the processors," said Mr. Sideco.

The development of the Tri-Gate technology also will serve as a defensive measure for Intel, facing a new challenge from ARM in its core PC microprocessor business. Microsoft Corp. in the first quarter of 2011 announced it would support the ARM microprocessor in the next version of its Windows operating system. This represents a major change in the global PC market, given that Windows almost always has been an x86-exclusive operating system.

With its historical advantage in power consumption, ARM could stand to eat into the x86’s core market in PCs, particularly in notebooks, according to iSuppli IHS. Still, given the fact that x86 has historical advantage when it comes to performance, ARM does not have a lot of chances in anything but ultra-cheap netbooks. Tri-gate will also make x86 a better matchup for ARM. In terms of power consumption, x86 will become more competitive with ARM in low-power devices such as notebooks, netbooks, tablets and smart phones. A big question, however, is how rapidly manufacturing partners of ARM will be able to introduce high-volume process technologies with tri-gate or triple-gate transistors.

“The capability to go into high-volume production should give Intel a two- to three-year manufacturing advantage over its competitors,” said Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst for semiconductor manufacturing at IHS iSuppli.

"Intel is roughly 18 months ahead of IBM, GlobalFoundries, TSMC and Samsung on their process technology. [...] The most likely scenario for 22nm is that Intel begins shipping at the end of 2011 or early 2012 and the foundries follow with 20nm products in 2013. Intel will have a ~18 month window with a twofold manufacturing edge over their competitors. First, they will gain a full process node in terms of density and power/performance and second, the additional benefits of [3D] FinFET transistors. After these 18 months, the gap will narrow, but Intel will still have FinFETs to themselves for another 2 years," said Mr. Kanter.

Tags: Intel, 22nm, Semiconductor, Ivy Bridge, Core, Knights Corner

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