Last April, I was in Beijing, attending Intel's first Intel Developer Forum outside of the US. There, CEO Paul Ottelini announced that Intel was on schedule to move from a 0.065 micron process down to a 0.045 micron process. Intel has ramped up its 45 nanometre production in two factories - Fab D1D one Oregon and Fab 32 in Arizona. A third, Fab 28 in Kiryat Gat, Israel, will come online in the first half of 2008 and a fourth, Fab 11X in Mexico, is expected to come online sometime in the second half of 2008.
On November 12th you'll be able to buy the new flagship consumer Intel processor, the Core 2 Extreme QX9650 - a 3GHz quad-core processor with 12Mb of Level 2 cache, on a 1,333MHz FSB. If you're in the flagship processor buying kind of mood then expect to pay around £650 - £700 for it.
What's significant about the launch of the QX9650 for Intel is that it is the first to be based on the new 0.045 micron process. While moving to a new micron process is normally par for the course, the move to 45 nanometres (nm) is big news from an engineering perspective, so much so that Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, referred to it as the biggest breakthrough in process technology for a generation. This is a bold claim indeed and we'll go into more detail a little later. For the consumer though, it's business as usual, with the next gen offering more performance, for the same or even less money as the previous gen.
The first 45nm part was announced at IDF in Beijing in April 2007 as Penryn. This is a refinement of the current based Core 2 Duo, which has so dominated the market since its release. This would not be an entirely new as Intel would never combine moving to a new architecture and moving to a new micron process - it would never take that kind of risk, as doing both at once would create too many opportunities for things to go wrong.
Instead, moving forward it intends to only move to a new micron process with a familiar architecture, introducing relatively minor enhancements and improvements, and only introducing brand new microprocessor architectures on a tried and tested micron process. Intel refers to this as ‘Sustained Technology Cadence, or informally, as Tick/Tock.
Hence, we have a very clear picture of what the future holds for Intel. The current Merom and Conroe Core 2 Duo processors are being replaced by the improved Penryn , based on a 45 nanometre (nm) process, while a radical all-new architecture called Nehalem will come along in 2008, again based on 45nm. Then in 2009 you'll get the improved version called Westmere (32nm) and then another new architecture in 2010 called Sandy Bridge, again on 32nm.
But what is the actual significance of moving to a new micron process? The key advantage is that it produces smaller chips, so more of them can fit on a wafer, which reduces Intel's costs - which is then usually passed onto the consumer. It also reduces heat and makes it possible to fit more transistors onto the die increasing performance. Specifically, with the move to 45nm we are told we can expect a 20 per cent increase in performance, a 10 times reduction in leakage and a 2x improvement in transistor density.