What Intel's 45nm chips mean to you

Intel's forthcoming 45nm processor manufacturing process has metal inside. The chipmaker, for the first time, will substitute certain materials that it—along with the whole industry, in fact—has been using since the 1960s to make transistors.
Written by John G. Spooner, Contributor

Intel's forthcoming 45nm processor manufacturing process has metal inside. The chipmaker, for the first time, will substitute certain materials that it—along with the whole industry, in fact—has been using since the 1960s to make transistors. The work at this most basic level of semiconductor design and manufacturing is necessary to continue to shrink the size of each transistor and thus fit more of them into each chip ala Moore’s Law, while helping to control power consumption.

The smaller a transistor, the bigger challenge power consumption can be due to the amount of power that can seep through when the transistor is turned off. Thus the 45nm process is, in of itself, a major accomplishment by the chipmaker in that it helps control this power leakage. Intel engineers are likely to have tried hundreds of combinations before arriving at the proper formula for its transistors’ metal gate and high-K gate oxide, which in the 45nm process replace silicon-based materials. The design effort took enough work for the company to keep its formula secret for the time being. Intel has a lot riding on 45nm and the additional capabilities it could lend to the chipmaker’s processors given its trials of late.

But, while you might applaud the efforts of Intel's engineers, you also might ask want to know, what's in it for me. Here’s the answer:  Intel will use the 45nm process to deliver Penryn, its next new family of multi-core processors. Penryn is slated to begin begin shipping later this year.

Several of the executives working in Intel’s 45nm project last week spent some time talking to analysts and reporters last week. During a call I joined, the executives offered some new details on Penryn. Penryn chips, which are based on a version of Intel’s current Core Microarchitecture’s circuitry redesigned for 45nm, will serve in desktops, notebooks, workstations and servers. Collectively, the chips will offer end-users greater performance, while having using about the same—or possibly less—electricity than today’s Core 2 Duo and Xeon 5000-series, the executives said. Part of the reason why is, thanks to smaller-sized transistors made possible by the 45nm process, Intel can stuff 410 million transistors into a dual-core Penryn chip. That’s 120 million more transistors its Core 2 Duo/Xeon 5100 and 5300 processors. Intel will use these extra transistors mainly to boost the cache sizes of Penryn chips, which means the chips can store more data close at hand, improving performance. Although the chips will also gain several new features, including enhanced power management and SSE4 (Streaming SIMD Extensions). SSE4 will include new instructions for processing multimedia and also for high-performance computing. Intel will also turn up the clock.

Thus Penryn chips will likely be capable of speeds well over 3GHz, but still consume the same or less power as today’s Core 2 Duos and Xeons. The chips will also be capable of plugging into existing PC models as it appears that Intel is working to make them compatible with existing chipsets. For what it’s worth, Intel is likely to handle quad-core versions of the chip Penryn the same as it does, today, by combining two dual-cores in a single package at first. Later 45nm chips are likely to be monolithic or incorporate all four cores into a single piece of silicon. But they may not arrive until the launch of Nehalem, Intel’s next processor architecture, scheduled for 2009.

When will Penryn chips arrive? The chipmaker set the gears in motion late last year. Its first prototype Penryn chips were incorporated into computers in early January. At that time, Intel says they were able to boot four different operating systems, including Windows XP and Windows Vista, Linux and Mac OS on the first try. This is a positive sign for the chips’ Intel health. But don’t get your hopes up for a Penryn-powered PC in 2007. Intel’s stated goal is to begin shipments of Penryn in the second half of 2007. It looks like Penryn is solidly on track to meet that goal. Intel would thus be months ahead of others in the industry in the move to 45nm. Advanced Micro Devices has pledged to begin delivering 45-nanometer chips by mid-2008.

However, during its last two manufacturing process transitions, including 130nm to 90nm and 90nm to 65nm, Intel did not begin deliveries of the new processors until very late in the year, usually November or December. Thus those chips weren’t offered in PCs until January or February of the following year. Intel’s Pentium D 900 series is one example of such a launch. The chip began shipping late in 2005, but did not arrive until January 2006. Varying from that path in order to deliver chips earlier is a difficult prospect. To have Penryn-powered PCs available during the 2007 holiday season, Intel would probably have to begin shipments by early October at the very latest. That would take a huge effort in order for the processors to be available in a few high-end desktops and notebooks.

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