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SAN FRANCISCO -- Intel Corp. said Wednesday that it has redesigned the electronic switches on its chips so that computers can keep getting cheaper and more powerful.
The switches, known as transistors, have typically been flat. By adding a third dimension -- "fins" that jut up from the base -- Intel will be able to make the transistors and chips smaller. Think of how skyscrapers address the need for more office space when land is scarce.
The company said the new structure will let chips run on less power. That gives Intel its best shot yet at cracking the growing markets for chips used in smartphones and tablet computers. Intel has been weak there because its current chips use too much power.
Chips with the 3-D transistors will be in full production this year and appear in computers in 2012.
Intel has been talking about 3-D, or "tri-gate," transistors for nearly a decade, and other companies are experimenting with similar technology. The announcement is noteworthy because Intel has figured out how to manufacture the transistors cheaply in mass quantities.
Transistors are at the center of the digital universe.
They're the workhorses of modern electronics, tiny on/off switches that regulate electric current. They're to computers what synapses are to the human nervous system.
Transistors operate in the shadows, but they're integral to daily life. And they need to shrink, so that computers can get smaller and smarter.
A chip can have a billion transistors, all laid out side by side in a single layer, as if they were the streets of a city. Chips have no "depth" -- until now. On Intel's chips, the fins will jut up from that streetscape, sort of like bridges or overpasses.
However, Intel's advance doesn't mean it can add a whole second layer of transistors to the chip, or start stacking layers into a cube. That remains a distant but hotly pursued goal of the industry, as cubic chips could be much faster than flat ones while consuming less power.
The demand is there for smartphones that deliver the Internet in our pockets, supercomputers that beat human champions at "Jeopardy!," and other feats of computer wizardry that would have been impossible in the 1970s. Processors then could only hold several thousand transistors. Today, they hold billions.
The latest change isn't something that consumers will be able to see because it happens at a microscopic level. But analysts call it one of the most significant shifts in silicon transistor design since the integrated circuit was invented more than half a century ago.
Other semiconductor companies argue that there's still life to be squeezed from the current design of transistors. Dan Hutcheson, a longtime semiconductor industry watcher and CEO of VLSI Research Inc., agreed, but said Intel's approach should allow it to advance at least a generation ahead of its rivals, which include IBM Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.37.77713 -122.4196
Taller transistors, currently flat chips, will increase power to machines.