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IDF Keynote: Intel is Carrying the PC Torch

Between 22nm tri-gate transistors, Ivy Bridge & Haswell processors, and future plans for Atom, Intel has big plans for the PC

While Windows 8 hogs the spotlight at Microsoft's BUILD conference, the Intel Developer Forum starts today with plenty of processor-centric announcements. Read on to see how 22nm tri-gate transistors, Ultrabooks, and other Intel projects will shape the next few years for the PIC.

Not a Post-PC world quite yet

Despite all the hoopla at IDF about Intel-based smartphones, tablets and other devices, Intel still views the PC as the center of the user's digital world.

That's the implicit message heard at Paul Otellini's keynote speech. While the relationship between Intel and Microsoft has been strained lately, given Microsoft's announcement that Windows 8 would work with ARM-based devices, Intel still talked up the PC. Paul Otellini and various Intel demo folk showed several apps that attempt to seamlessly integrate tablets and phones based on Google's Android OS with Windows-based PCs.

The PC love extended to Otellini talking up Intel's Ultrabook initiative. Recent Ultrabook announcements reinforce Otellini's point, as does Intel's $300 million investment in helping OEMs and ODMs deliver Ultrabook class systems to the market.

Still, it was easy to find evidence of the ongoing tension between Redmond and Santa Clara. While Otellini mentioned Windows 8 (without mentioning the parallel Windows Build conference hosted by Microsoft down in Anaheim), he brought Andy Rubin of Google on stage to announce a new development relationship between Intel and Google. While Windows may be for PCs, Intel seems to see Android as the basis for all those devices, like tablets and smartphones, that would be connected 24/7 to the PC. Not a single Windows Phone 7 device was in sight.

Also missing was any mention of Apple, despite Apple's record sales of MacBook line plus iMacs running Intel CPUs.

These are all indicators of the ongoing sea change in the industry, as the big tech companies adjust to a post-PC world. The PC may still be a critical part of users' lives, but whether it remains the center of the digital universe is uncertain. And if there's one thing Intel doesn't like, it's uncertainty.

22nm Tri-Gate: Transistors in 3D

Mark Bohr, Intel Senior Fellow, discussed some of the challenges inherent with shrinking the CPU to smaller and smaller die sizes. As the transistor density increases, power becomes a major issue. Bohr discussed Intel's decision to build vertical fins in the silicon layers to help carry drive current and increase performance.

In fact, chip designers can chain together multiple fins to increase performance, although at the cost of more power consumption. But the overall power efficiency (in performance per watt) increases. Tri-gate transistors can operate at lower voltages for the same CPU performance, offering up to a 50% reduction in power consumption. Bohr noted that they'd still see a 37% improvement in power usage as opposed to building their next generation CPUs using planar 22nm techniques.

All this performance and power consumption goodness doesn't come free. CPUs are built onto large silicon wafers with hundreds of CPU dies. Wafers are expensive, and using tri-gate will increase wafer costs 2-3% over planar 22nm designs. But Intel feels the power consumption and performance gains outweigh the wafer costs.

Interestingly, Bohr also noted that at 32nm (prior to tri-gate), Intel actually has three families of transistors for different product requirements: high performance, standard performance and low power. This is different from the 65nm era, when Intel offered a single type of transistor to all their CPU designers.

22nm Roadmap

Intel VP Steve Smith discussed product development with 22nm tri-gate technology.

Smith suggested that a quad-core CPU can be built in the same area and with the same power consumption in 22nm tri-gate as dual core CPUs in 32nm. They'll actually have different manufacturing processes in place for standard CPUs and system-on-chip products (which may end up in mobile devices.)

Ivy Bridge and Haswell will use the high performance process and will be used to build server, desktop and laptop CPUs. Ivy Bridge will be the first CPU shipped on 22nm early in 2012, with Haswell coming later. Atom, considered a system-on-chip, will use the other process. Atom products based on 22nm will begin with the version code-named Silvermont in 2013. Smith said Intel is planning on moving Atom to 14nm by 2014.

Despite having different processes for system-on-chip and traditional CPUs, Intel is unifying its design efforts and design teams, which will share all the technologies irrelevant of the process. The unified teams and design approach will help Intel speed up the development pace.

While Intel is busy getting its Ultrabook initiative launched, the Ultrabook will see its maturity with the 22nm Haswell generation, when users will see a 20x improvement in network-connected standby time.

Stay tuned for more IDF coverage over the next three days.

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