Intel Shifts From Silicon To Lift Chip Performance
By DON CLARK
November 12, 2007; Page B7
A fundamental shift in chip-manufacturing technology is bearing its first fruits: a collection of Intel Corp. microprocessors that is getting impressive early reviews.
Intel's latest chips, being formally announced today at an event in San Francisco, were built with new manufacturing materials. Intel is building transistors in the chips from a material called hafnium instead of silicon dioxide, an industry mainstay since the 1960s.
"It's one of the biggest changes in the last 40 years," said David Perlmutter, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's mobility group.
New production processes routinely bring technical and economic benefits. Shrinking the size of transistors and other features lets chips store more data and perform other functions at lower cost.
Earlier in this decade, however, chip makers began running into power problems. Without changes to the materials used in chips, electrical current began leaking as parts of those tiny switches became smaller and smaller -- a problem akin to a faucet that won't shut off reliably.
Getting performance increases by the conventional method of boosting clock speeds -- a measure referring to the timing pulses that coordinate activity on a chip -- began to consume too much electricity and generate too much heat. So Intel and rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. began competing by squeezing two or four electronic brains on their products, offering what they call dual-core or quad-core microprocessors.
Intel's new process makes it easier to add more such features. It shrinks circuitry dimensions to 45 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, from 65 nanometers. The new materials for making transistors, meanwhile, can increase their switching speeds by more than 20% while reducing their power consumption by about 30%, Intel estimates.
Intel's latest chip designs have other features to raise efficiency. Performance increases, compared with earlier models, average 7% to 13% at the same clock speed, Mr. Perlmutter says. But gaming enthusiasts are equally excited about the prospect of greater increases in clock speeds to make programs run faster.
Intel's new $999 quad-core model for high-end PCs, called the Core 2 Extreme QX9650, is being introduced at an initial clock speed of three gigahertz. But Kelt Reeves, president of gaming-PC maker Falcon Northwest, said he has been able to use a technique called overclocking to operate the chip at four gigahertz -- boosting performance by a third -- with little increase in power consumption. That suggests Intel's manufacturing process has "headroom to burn" in developing faster models later, he said.
Besides the gaming version, Intel is announcing 15 Xeon models for server systems, priced from $177 to $1,279, with clock speeds of up to 3.4 gigahertz.