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Breaking Moore's Law: How chipmakers are pushing PCs to blistering new levels

Brad Chacos | April 12, 2013
Processor performance increases may have flatlined over the past few years, but the biggest brains in the biz are working on cutting-edge tech to push PCs to blistering new speeds.

There's no two ways around it: The PC is slowing down with age.

That may be a bit harsh--computers are faster and smaller than ever before--but processor performance simply isn't advancing at its past breakneck pace. At one time, 50 to 60 percent leaps in year-to-year performance were commonplace. Now, 10 to 15 percent improvements are the norm.

Luckily, five-plus-year-old computers can still tackle everyday tasks just fine, so the performance slowdown isn't a huge issue. Plus, it's nice not having to replace your PC every other year during a down economy. But technology doesn't advance by sticking to the status quo. The future needs speed!

Fortunately, the biggest names in PC processors aren't satisfied with the status quo. Chip makers are working furiously to solve the problems posed by a slowing Moore's Law and the rise of the power wall, in a bid to keep the performance pedal to the metal.

So what kinds of radical tricks do they have up their sleeves? Several different kinds, actually--and each holds great potential for the future. Let's take a look behind the curtain.

Intel: Building on the shoulders of giants

Can we chalk up today's paltry performance gains to a breakdown in Moore's Law? Not quite. Moore's legendary line might be frequently misquoted to talk about CPU performance, but the letter of the Law revolves around the number of transistors on a circuit doubling every two years.

While other chip makers have struggled to shrink transistors and squeeze more of them onto a chip, Intel--the company Moore himself cofounded--has kept pace with Moore's Law since its utterance, an achievement that can be laid at the feet of Intel's small army of engineers. Not just any engineers, though. Clever engineers.

As transistors become more tightly packed, heat and power-efficiency concerns become major problems. Now that transistors are reaching almost infinitesimally small sizes--each of the billion-plus transistors in Intel's Ivy Bridge chips measure 22 nanometers (nm), or roughly 0.000000866 inch--conquering those woes takes creative thinking.

"There's no doubt it's getting hard," Intel technical manufacturing manager Chuck Mulloy said in a phone interview. "Really, really hard. I mean, we're at the atomic level."

To keep progress a-rollin', Intel has made some significant changes to the base design of transistors over the past decade. In 2002, the company announced that it was switching to so-called "strained silicon," which increased chip performance by 10 to 20 percent by slightly deforming the structure of silicon crystals.

Mo' power means mo' problems, though. Specifically, as transistors continue to shrink, they suffer from increased electron "leakage," which makes them far less efficient. Two recent tweaks combat that leakage in novel ways.

 

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