Will FinFETs Save Intel?

Posted: May 31, 2011 in ARM, Intel, Tablet
Tags: , , , , ,

I have said before that Intel’s big ace in the hole is its process technology. At the beginning of this month, Intel made an announcement regarding their Tri-Gate technology. They make it sound completely unique to Intel but in reality it exists at several companies although the industry usually refers to it as FinFET technology. Never mind that others also have this technology. The key is that Intel can out process those guys.  Intel consistently has superior real world (volume production ready) process technology compared to anyone. When the world moved to 90nm and below, leakage current became a big deal. Many would say it became the dominant design factor if you are at all concerned with power. This meant that going smaller didn’t necessarily reduce power. It meant complex design choices just to save power. You could design with a low leakage transistor or a low power one. Today designers often mix transistor types to get the best balance of speed and power. FinFETs offer a move back to the old world where smaller meant both faster and lower power.

For decades we have lived in a world where processing speed and cost were the big drivers. What hasn’t been a huge issue has been power. Yeah, we would give it lip service and laptops would have to take it into account but it still took a back seat to speed and cost. That has changed. That is how ARM went from being a niche architecture to threatening the behemoth of the CPU world. Now power is a major focus of Intel. If all things were equal it would be a case of realizing the future too late to stop where things are headed. But… all things aren’t equal and it isn’t a level playing field. Intel has huge resources and access to proprietary process technology. The world won’t move from ARM to Atom just because Intel wants them too. Companies like the fact that they can bake their own chips by licensing an ARM core. The ARM architecture is now standard in both the smartphone and tablet worlds. However, all phone and tablet companies are pushing up against power consumption that runs into the brick wall of battery technology. Batteries are improving but not as fast as the demand for mobile processing power. If Intel can make Atom based chips clearly superior to ARM based approaches when it comes to power then they just might be able to win companies over. They are trying very hard. Stay tuned.

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