Intel Announces 3D Transistor CPUs w/Video Explanation

Intel announced a major advancement in CPU technology Wednesday, Tri-Gate transistors, which the company has dubbed 3D transistors (explanation below). The company said that the new technology will fuel Moore’s Law “for years to come,” and that it will offer, “an unprecedented combination of performance improvement and power reduction.”

“The performance gains and power savings of Intel’s unique 3-D Tri-Gate transistors are like nothing we’ve seen before,” Mark Bohr, Intel Senior Fellow, said in a statement. “This milestone is going further than simply keeping up with Moore’s Law. The low-voltage and low-power benefits far exceed what we typically see from one process generation to the next. It will give product designers the flexibility to make current devices smarter and wholly new ones possible. We believe this breakthrough will extend Intel’s lead even further over the rest of the semiconductor industry.”

This is, in a nutshell, very big news for Intel and the world of computing devices. The markets liked the news enough to send Intel’s stock up almost 2% to close at $23.50, up $0.450 (+1.95%), on heavy volume of 137 million shares trading hands.

The short explanation for the technology is that Intel has figured out how take the electron flow across a transistor from a flat, 2D “planer” flow to a so-called 3D flow, as represented in the two images below taken from a great video explanation (which we embedded below) released by Intel.

3D Transistor Illustration

The transistor on the left was made with the decades old planer method, while the image on the right represents Intel’s new 3D technology

By turning that flow of electrons into a 3D flow, the gate in Intel’s transistors can have greater control over that flow, which means greater efficiency and higher performance.

This is a big deal on any number of fronts. On the high end CPU side, it means that Intel can continue to shrink its processors and make them ever-faster, which is why the company said that this will fuel Moore’s Law for years to come.

To remind you, Moore’s Law (which is not really a law, but more of a suggestion) says that the number of transistors that can be put on an integrated circuit will double every two years. Moore’s Law has been in doubt for the last few years as Intel and other semiconductor companies have been running smack dab up against pesky physics laws (that apparently have veto power over Moore’s Law) that were limiting gains in this area.

The 3D transistor technology is already allowing Intel to use a 22nm process for a new microprocessor the company has codenamed “Ivy Bridge,” which will be the first “high volume” chip to use this technology.

That’s good news for desktop and mobile computer makers like Apple and its users who want ever-more processing power in their computers, preferably while using less electrical power to get it.

It’s even better news for Intel, however, as the company believes it will make it possible to make CPUs that compete with ARM processors for power and performance in smartphone, tablets, and even embedded functions such as electronic controls for, “cars, spacecraft, household appliances, medical devices and virtually thousands of other everyday devices for decades.”

Most smartphones and tablets use ARM processors — Apple’s own A4 and A5 processors that power the iPhone and iPad are based on the ARM architecture. If Intel can make a 3D transistor CPU that beats what Apple can do with ARM, the company would have a chance to win Apple’s iOS device business, as well as Android-device business from other companies.

In the video below, Mr. Bohr demonstrates why he’s a scientists and engineer and not an actor, but it’s still a fantastically accessible explanation for why Intel believes this is a big deal.

Intel video hosted by Intel Senior Fellow Mark Bohr