Intel's new 3-D chips: A new level in the mobile fight

May 5, 2011: 11:36 AM ET

The formidable company has been behind the curve in mobile. Can a new way of building chips make it newly attractive to mobile device makers?

FORTUNE -- Intel processors are found in about 80% of the world's computers. But the company lags behind in mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, where chips licensed by rival ARM Holdings (ARMH) rule.

That may soon change, if Intel (INTC) can get a promising new technology onto mobile chips fast enough.

On Wednesday in San Francisco, the company unveiled an innovative production technology that it says will allow it to cram more transistors onto microchips for years to come. The "major technical breakthrough" is a 22nm microprocessor codenamed Ivy Bridge, which will be the first high-volume chip to use 3-D transistors. (For more on the technology behind 3-D transistors, check out Intel's illuminating video below).

"Intel's scientists and engineers have once again reinvented the transistor, this time utilizing the third dimension," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in a press release. "Amazing, world-shaping devices will be created from this capability as we advance Moore's Law into new realms."

Ivy Bridge is promising -- Intel says its new transistors will provide up to a 37% performance increase and consume less than half the power than their 2-D counterparts. The company also says the 3-D transistors will be ideal for use in small handheld devices since they use less electricity. But is this "radical redesign" enough to get Intel up to speed in the mobile race, where it's flailing behind?

It's hard to answer that question without a little more information -- like when Intel's new transistors will actually make their way into processors for mobile devices -- which the company declined to disclose. Instead, Intel laid out plans for its more traditional product line, showing off prototype desktops and laptops and announcing that production of its new chips for PCs and servers would start by the end of 2011. But when and where the new 3-D transistors will work their way onto mobile devices remains murky.

So while Ivy Bridge will help Intel extend Moore's Law and give the company a significant advantage over its competitors in the more traditional PC processors market, it's disappointing that the company isn't offering more details on its game plan for mobile.

"Intel is fighting for their life to get in to mobile," says Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, a market research firm. "They need something to leapfrog their competitors who dominate mobile."

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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