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The Humble PC Gets A Whopping Makeover

By Wire Service: BBC Syndication | Monday | 12/11/2007

The humble PC is set to undergo a processor revolution with the introduction of a brand new processor, known as Penryn. It is so small and powerful that it will set a new standard for PC design speed and function.

The chip industry's unrelenting quest to build smaller, faster microchips has taken another step forward.

Chip-maker Intel has launched a range of processors, known as Penryn, which will power the next generation of PCs.

The tiny chips contain a novel material and have features just 45 nanometres (billionths of a metre) wide.

The only PC processor in the line-up of 16 chips packs 820 million of the tiny switches into an area little bigger than a postage stamp.

"Had we used the same transistors that we used in our chips 15 to 20 years ago, the chip would be about the size of a two-storey building," said Bill Kircos of Intel.

Paul Otellini, head of Intel, described the challenge of building the chips as "awe-inspiring".

Although the chip-maker is the first company to make microprocessors with such tiny features, other companies, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), are producing other types of silicon chip.

"We have 45nm designs in production," said Chuck Byers of the firm.

TSMC manufactures chips on behalf of other companies.

Material world

The launch of the new multi-core chips comes nearly 60 years after the transistor was invented.

The brainchild of three scientists working at the research labs of the US Bell System telephone company, the tiny switches have gone on to underpin the silicon age.

HOW A PROCESSOR WORKS

how a processor works

Microprocessors use a three-step process. Fetch gets an instruction from the computer's memory. Decode decides what the instruction means. Execute involves carrying out the instruction. A microprocessor can carry out these steps millions of times a second.

how a processor works

The simple calculation 2+3 involves all three steps

how a processor works

1. When the user presses the "2" key new data enters the microprocessor. This is assigned the code 2 equals x
2.This code is then converted into binary, a numeric system that uses "1s" and "0s"
3.The binary code for 2 ­ 10 - is stored and awaits further instructions. (See Over)

how a processor works

1. The process is repeated when the 3 key is pressed but this time 3 = y. The binary code for 3 ­ 11 - is stored.

how a processor works

1. When the + key is pressed the microprocessor asks the computers main memory for instructions
2.The code x+y=z is sent to the decode unit to be translated into binary
3.The ALU - a set of circuits dedicated to numerical calculations - adds the numbers The ALU adds 10 and 11 to get 101, the binary equivalent of 5
4.The answer is stored and awaits further instructions

how a processor works

1. When the = key is pressed the microprocessor retrieves the answer ­z - and sends it for output
2.The task is complete.

The first transistors were crude devices made of several different materials and many centimetres tall.

Over the last six decades, scientists have refined the devices and can now pack millions of them on to a square of silicon.

The onward progression of the silicon industry is known as Moore's Law, and states that the numbers of transistors on a chip will double every two years.

However, as the industry devices have shrunk, researchers have been forced to confront major technical obstacles.

In the latest generation of Intel chips, critical elements of the transistors, known as gate dielectrics, do not perform as well.

As a result, currents passing through the transistors leak, reducing the effectiveness of the chip.

To overcome this, Intel has replaced the gate dielectrics, previously made from silicon dioxide, with a material based on the metal hafnium.

Hafnium is a so-called high-K material, which refers to its dielectric constant, and has a greater ability to store electrical charge than silicon dioxide.

The exact recipe for the new material has not been revealed but Intel says that it offers greater performance at such tiny scales.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore has described the inclusion of hafnium as "one of the biggest transistor advancements in 40 years".

Tiny tweaks

In contrast, TSMC has said that its chips do not use the new material.

"We have an alternative process that we believe has even more performance value," said Mr Byers.

"One of the strategies we employ is to make it [a manufacturing process] accessible as possible and one of the ways you do that is to change the process as little as possible."

Rather than changing the design of the chips, TSMC has tweaked the manufacturing process to produce the tiny features.

"We work very hard to maintain performance levels with existing materials," said Mr Byers. "For instance, at 45nm there are only a couple or three changes."

"There are several ways to skin this cat," added Gareth Jones, also of TSMC.

However, other companies have signalled their intention to start production of microchips using similar hafnium technology.

IBM, which has developed rival technology with Toshiba, Sony and AMD, intends to incorporate the transistors into its chips in 2008.

Hewlett Packard, Lenovo and Dell have already said that they will use the new Penryn processors in top of the range PCs.

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